Is Education Overlooking the Needs of Boys?

Is Education Overlooking the Needs of Boys?

Photo Credit: Marco Jaiver

In the early 1970s, many people began to question why girls did not seem interested in science and math and were not engaged in sports. Research demonstrated that it wasn’t because girls were incapable. Instead, socialization practices, teacher and parental expectations, and media messages told girls that these areas were “not for them.”

So, people went into action. Policymakers put legislation like Title IX in place, and companies changed how girls and women were portrayed in textbooks. It took more than ten years, but eventually the situation improved for girls.

All along, everybody assumed boys were doing just fine. But, current research shows that boys — particularly African-American and Latino boys — are being stigmatized in school. They are falling behind in reading and disengaging from school at a very early age, a trend that has disastrous long-term consequences.

In a chapter titled “Improving Boys’ Achievement in Early Childhood and Primary Education,” published in Lessons in Educational Equality by Oxford University Press, 2012, we synthesize international research about the difficulties boys experience in school and strategies to remedy the situation. The chapter grows out of research and curricula around raising and educating healthy boys that we’ve been doing since 2000. In brief, we argue that the lack of success young boys are experiencing is a gender equity issue, and it calls for some of the strategies that have worked to address gender equity in girls’ education. As a first step, we recommend restoring early education to its roots: making time for play, social-emotional development and exploration.

We found that in countries around the world, but especially the United States, even kindergarteners are spending an increasing amount of time being taught or tested in literacy and math. This mandated curriculum leaves little time for child-initiated learning or unstructured play and contributes to a rise in aggression and anxiety in young children. And, importantly, they don’t have the opportunity to develop critical social-emotional skills.

Diminishing opportunities for play and prosocial learning are especially disastrous for boys. It sets boys up for increased likelihood of violence, lower academic achievement and eventually disproportionately high drop-out rates.

International research is also finding that societal stereotypes about gender — ideas of what boys and girls are supposed to be like — contribute to boys’ lack of success in school.

For instance, a focus group of teachers and parents said boys were expected to be strong and to hide their emotions; those who didn’t would suffer a host of consequences such as being bullied and ostracized. They also said that energetic boys were thought to be troublemakers.

These expectations prevent boys from developing into psychologically healthy young men, and they often leave boys with the sense of being scrutinized, disliked or simply “bad.”

We recommend that teacher education include discussions about gender attitudes and how they affect the way teachers relate to both boys and girls. Change will require intentional focus and concerted effort. But that kind of effort is possible. After all, advocates changed national policies and scaled up programs for girls a generation ago.

To be sure, work on behalf of girls is not done. But we can apply some of that movement’s lessons to improving boys’ well-being and success in school. Ultimately, we believe that it is important to understand and meet all children’s needs in the classroom and that effective gender equity benefits both girls and boys.

4 Responses

4 Responses to “Is Education Overlooking the Needs of Boys?”

  1. lgray on

    Hi John, here is a response from the authors —

    “Thank you for your response, giving an international perspective on issues of boys’ success in school. We agree that high stakes testing and lack of attention to equity in boys’ education has not served boys well in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other countries around the globe. We applaud your efforts to give boys a different educational experience in your school. In the USA, we hope that our book, Supporting Boys’ Learning: Strategies for Teacher Practice Pre-K-Grade 3 is making a difference (2010, Teachers College Press).”

  2. lgray on

    Hi Ann, here is a response from the authors —

    “Your thoughtful response touches on several important issues that impede boys’ success in school and, often, in life. You are right that different treatment of boys starts very early and deprives them of social-emotional support in the name of “masculinity.” As you point out, the lack of social-emotional support continues when they enter school and contributes to the sense of helplessness and lack of success that many boys feel. Our book, Supporting Boys’ Learning: Strategies for Teacher Practice Pre-K-Grade 3 provides practical ways for teachers to build on boys’ strengths and respect their individual development needs. (2010, Teachers College Press). “

  3. John Stewart on

    Poignant and important. Thank you.
    Has the focus on PISA tables had an adverse impact on schooling globally? UK, USA, Australia all have a focus on high-stake testing to measure quantifiable indications of ‘quality’ education, based on a testing system that has at its core ‘recall’. When one considers the history of the multiple choice test (invented in 1914) and how its ‘creator’, Professor Kelly, was sacked for disowning the use of his baby in a way that distorted its importance, we have to question our blind-belief in test scores.
    Boy-centric learning isn’t mysogyny it is based on all our sons having equity in education. Read more at my blog to see how technology has revolutionised education from the invention of the blackboard in 1801, to the concerns we must have for boys’ falling standards in literacy and numeracy.

  4. ann on

    The problem involves two entirely different treatment of Males and Females beginning as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment through adulthood. This is creating the growing Male Crisis in the information age. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males beginning as early and possibly earlier than one year. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, verbal interaction and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. This increases over time and continued by society from peers and teachers to others in society. I feel many teachers desire good behavior but still use more aggressive treatment from society direction and part as an accepted outlet for their own frustrations upon boys. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; higher average stress that hurts learning and motivation to learn; more activity due to need for stress relief; more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues on through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and more escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also the giving of love based on achievement that many Males thus falling behind academics then turns their attention toward video games and sports, risk taking to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom. So let us have equality, but at the same time, begin providing boys and men with the same love, honor, respect, and “care” we provide the girls.