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What's the Problem with Schools for Boys?

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  • Article summary:

    Why don’t young boys do as well as girls in school? Do the requirements of school make it hard for some young boys to get along with teachers and succeed at learning? Is the problem at school,at home or in the media?

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What's the Problem with Schools for Boys?

“Too often, we disapprove of what’s in boys’ minds, both in school and at home. Boys’ mothers and female teachers find some of their favourite thoughts, like ‘good guys making the world safe by killing bad guys,’ disturbing. Afraid that these thoughts indicate a worrisome propensity to violence, adults try to prohibit these thoughts and the toys that represent them, although boys see images all around them encouraging the fantasies and recommending the toys. Prohibited from the physical activity they need, criticized for the content of their minds, and required to do work they cannot do as well as the little girls around them, it is not surprising that some of these boys get off to a bad start, giving up before they have begun.”

Jane Katch, M.S.T. (Kindergarten Teacher, Touchstone Community School, Grafton, Massachusetts. Author, Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play.)

While there has been great (and valid) concern about the achievements of girls in our educational system, most of the gains in education over the last thirty years have been achieved by girls. So what’s happening to boys when they go to school?

The average boy is less mature than the average girl when he starts school.

By school age, the average boy is less mature socially, less verbal, and more active than most of the girls. “We ask too much of boys developmentally in the early years and they taste too much failure and frustration in school,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

Schools, not boys, have changed.
Children are now taught to read in pre-school when many young boys are not as skilled verbally as girls. “At age five, many boys are not ready to learn to read,” says teacher Jane Katch, author of Under Deadman’s Skin. “When I began teaching in the ‘70s, children were not expected to read in pre-school. Some first grade teachers actually preferred that children learn the alphabet in first grade, where they could learn to do it ‘the right way’!”

The early grades are four-fifths language based, and girls are, on average, stronger than boys in language.
Boys start slower in the areas of reading and writing. This is true not only in the United States, but also in each of the 30 countries involved in a recent international study. I feel that boys develop an idea early on that they are not good at the kind of literacy schools require. And then a deficit or problem becomes an identity. By the time boys reach middle school, or even the upper elementary grades, they lack the fluency and sometimes practice to be successful. When they reach high school they develop coping strategies where they fake it,” comments Thomas Newkirk, Ph.D. author of Misreading Masculinity.

Boys are more active than many girls and have trouble sitting still for long periods of time.
Experts agree that physical play is essential for boys and girls, particularly young children in the motor stage of development. In fact, moving around helps them learn. But many schools have cut down on break time and outdoor play in order to make time for meeting academic requirements. “Today, most pre-school curricula expect boys to sit still much of the day and to do written work that many of them cannot master. Our demand for more and earlier skills, of exactly the type that boys are less able to master than girls, makes them feel like failures at an early age,” says Jane Katch. “The most tiring thing you can ask a boy to do is sit down. It’s appropriate to expect for kids to sit still for part of the day, but not all of the day,” adds Joseph Tobin.

Many schools don’t offer enough hands-on learning opportunities.
“There is evidence that boys learn best when learning is hands-on. Boys may be disadvantaged when they don’t get to learn through their bodies, by touching and moving. However, with the new academic push and focus on literacy we see that type of learning relegated to ‘play areas,’ and even these areas have been taken out of some pre-school classes. So with the emphasis on reading, there is an imbalance — an over-focus on reading instead of manipulating actual things,” explains Tobin.

Most early grade teachers are women.

Therefore, there are few male models for learning as a masculine pursuit.”Many boys don’t feel that they can grow up to be masculine men by being good at school. Girls often feel that you can be a successful girl and woman by doing well in school,” adds Thompson.

Many female teachers may unconsciously prefer girls’ interests (diaries and first-person narratives) over boys’ interests like comic books and science fiction.
”I’ve visited schools and taught teachers for over twenty years,” comments Tobin. “I’ve observed that in many preschool or early grade classrooms, teachers will try to be balanced in their choice of read-aloud books, but it’s only natural and inevitable that they fall back on favourites. Since almost all teachers of young children are women, books they are most enthusiastic about are generally more feminine than masculine in taste. It’s not that boys aren’t interested in a good story, but their non-narrative interests are not always supported and female teachers are often uncomfortable with the narrative themes boys find more interesting, like science fiction, robots, machines, etc.”

Practical Solutions:

At times, the problems for boys in school seem insurmountable. Fortunately, simple, practical strategies have been offered by the same experts who criticize the ways things are. Their suggestions apply to boys in preschool, elementary, and middle school and may be helpful to teachers and parents.

Let them play. 

Give boys lots of opportunities for physical activity and don’t expect them to sit still for long periods of time. “Play is the work of childhood, it’s how kids learn social skills and develop verbal skills, and it’s vanishing from the classroom. Kids are not being allowed to play enough in school, both indoors and outdoors,” says Jane Katch.

Create learning activities where boys use their bodies.

“Boys learn best when learning is ‘hands-on.’ They learn by touching, moving, climbing on, and building things. They solve problems physically — so if kids are handling real things, they will learn more effectively. This applies to pre-school and throughout their school experience,” says Joseph Tobin.

Let boys read (and listen to) books that appeal to their interests.

“Know your boys, know their passions, and know what books can speak to those passions. Boys are open to reading — if they can make their own choices. We read to connect to interests we have — and literacy piggybacks on those interests,” says Thomas Newkirk. “I tell my prospective teachers that they should have at least a thousand books in their heads — possibilities for students to read. Unless we can build a base in reading thousands and thousands of words our students will never be able to read the classics. And by reading, I think we need to look at all kinds of reading — magazines, graphic novels, humour, etc. — and not just classical literature.”

Read aloud to boys and have them read aloud to you.

“One practice that is critical is reading aloud to boys. This stops way too early in homes and in schools. Reading aloud is a bridge to reading the child might do later on, independently,” advises Newkirk.

Allow boys to write about what interests them instead of what interests you.
“When children are learning to write, give them opportunities to write about subjects that are most meaningful to them — what they love, what they hate, what scares them and what excites them,” recommends Katch. “This way they will learn the power and significance of using the written word to communicate. If they write in a way that causes others to be disturbed, then talk about ways they can write what is important to them without disturbing others rather than prohibiting their expression. 

I personally think Pokemon is boring but I know a boy who wrote 27 books about it and went from being a non-writer to a terrific writer. “ Another practice is connecting writing to digital storytelling. I think we need to conceptualize reading and writing as multi-modal involving not only print but music, visuals, and more,” adds Newkirk.

Allow discussion of topics boys may want to talk about (but teachers and girls may not). 

“In a classroom that allows boys’ thoughts and fantasies to be expressed in their stories and their play, controversial issues will come up. In my class, some children did not want to hear any story that contained killing,” notes Katch. “But several boys complained that their stories of good guys and bad guys sometimes need to contain killing off the bad guy. When we discussed the problem, the children realized that everyone thought it was all right to kill the bad guys; there were objections only when a character was killed who was not clearly bad. So the boys agreed that they would only kill off evil characters. The children realized that by talking about what was important to them, they could communicate with each other and come to an agreement that felt right to everyone.”

Allow boys to express humour in appropriate ways and at appropriate times.
“Include satire, parody, and humour in the curriculum, and don’t be too hard on boys who are class clowns. Instead, acknowledge the boy’s skill at being humorous. If the boy gets credit for this quality, he may not repeat the behaviour. If you treat a clown as your biggest problem you are creating a conflict. Treat that boy with respect and respectfully ask him to make jokes at another time, if they get out of control,” advises Joseph Tobin. “Sometimes, you just have to have a sense of humour about the boy’s sense of humour. Most teachers I know admit that as annoying as boy humour can be, it can also brighten up the day,” adds Michael Thompson.

PBS Parents

PBS Parents is a website dedicated to educating parents and enriching their experience with their children. It includes parents' guides to children and media, raising boys and child development, among other information. To read the original article, in full



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