BOYS' Education

Dr Peter West

Educational Solutions



Schools are not succeeding in capturing the imagination and energy of many boys. Too many boys feel that school is a combination of a hostile authority and meaningless tasks. And governments are concerned because schools are not imparting to many boys the values governments wish them to learn – such as productivity, citizenship and helping the community. Boys and men at risk cost the community in road deaths, suicides and broken families. Men are 90 per cent of the people kept at great cost in prisons. Likewise, the vast majority of school suspensions and expulsions and slow achievers are boys.

Most or many girls will learn under even bad teachers. Most boys will not; they get fed up, disengage and get into mischief. Being a boy, with all its qualities of noisiness, risk and adventure, does not mesh very well with what teachers expect of children who are in classrooms (West, 1999). I am not concerned, of course, with boys from wealthier homes who usually succeed well. Nor I am I concerned here with those high-achieving boys, often from Chinese and Indian families, who have stellar academic success.
The literature on getting boys on the road to success suggests that the following avenues are fruitful. We have to start in the classroom. Boys spend some 13,000 hours in classrooms and the level of teaching they get is all-important.

How do we motivate boys?

Shipman and Hicks said that teachers and boys had different ideas of motivation. Teachers thought boys were motivated when they were taking notes. But the boys felt this was just teachers keeping them heads-down in useless busy work. Boys felt they were motivated when they were exploring, experimenting and arguing (West, 2002, p. 112).

Some research also talks about a need for some risk, challenge, even a whiff of danger as part of how boys want to learn; hence the attraction of the outdoors. If it’s too safe, it becomes boring for many boys. And bored boys often cause trouble.

What teachers should do

  • Abandon teacher talk as the main mode of instruction. Provide as much variety in instruction as possible (Martin, 2002, p. 152; West, 2002, p. 168)
  • Maximise opportunities for success (Martin, 2002, p. 152; West, 2002, p. 168)
  • Keep a check on who gets praised. Girls say that boys don’t get praised as often as girls (West, 2002)
  • Active and practical learning is very important for all learners, though some subjects challenge teachers in this regard, notoriously, English.
  • Highlight relevance and application of knowledge. “What can I use this for?” is a key question for boys (Martin, 2002, p. 152; West, 2002, p. 168)
  • Teach through real objects, excursions, artefacts, etc. Good teachers are teaching principles and generalisations from things relevant to boys’ interests (Martin, 2002, p. 145)
  • Gary Wilson at Kirklees LEA in the UK says that boys often don’t know many things which teachers assume they do. Things that are taken for granted include how to organise thoughts into paragraphs; how to put fors and againsts on a page; and how to sum up an argument. Cleve Latham in the USA gives his boys rubrics on how to write an essay – introductions, developing ideas, summing up (West, 2002, p. 132)
  • Boys are not all the same. Therefore, room for diverse ways of learning among boys (and girls) is important (Martin, 2002, p. 152; West, 2002, p. 168)
  • Research says that nothing can be done until teachers raise their expectations of boys. This is the absolute bottom line.

What schools should do

  • Make sure that boys feel valued and liked (Martin, 2003, p. 152)
  • Give boys responsibility for learning. In one case, a school took Year 9 away from the rest of the school to a separate campus. They had no canteen; the boys had to organise one. They had no gym: the boys’ fathers were asked to help the boys build one. The lessons of responsibility learned were powerful (West, 2002, p. 168)
  • Boys feel teachers “don’t ask, don’t listen and don’t care” in too many schools (Slade and Trent, 2000, p. 205)
  • But schools that work well with boys show that they care through listening to boys’ voices and correctly analysing needs (West, 2002)
  • Slade and Trent have a useful summary on what a good teacher for boys looks like: she or he listens to you, laughs with you, respects you, wants you to succeed, doesn’t mark you down for bad behaviour and so on (West, 2002, p. 112). Compare with a similar list of a with-it teacher that boys like in Martin (2003, p. 101)
Many of the elite schools I visited in my Best Practice in Boys’ Education Project deliberately taught boys a whole range of social skills that showed them how to chat, how to meet and greet people, how to eat out, how to conduct yourself among adults. Learning social skills might help boys better negotiate some of the difficulties in school and in life. Too often, a boy in trouble in one class gets into a confrontation with a year coordinator. A minor problem escalates and it becomes a mammoth one, ending in suspension or expulsion. Boys storm out slamming doors and shouting, imitating the male behaviour they see on television.

Schools should:

  • help parents support effective pedagogy. Some sources emphasise the role of fathers (West, 2001, p. 10; Martin, 2003, p. 9)
  • support literacy at all levels, model reading and keep persisting with this
  • help teachers not to fear (and thus too quickly punish) boys but to have fun in learning with them. Black males seem to suffer from this problem especially (West, 2001; 2002)
Cleve Latham at a school in the USA found boys enjoyed school when it wasn’t like school. His English lessons were based on debates, activities, movie reviews and similar activities (West, 2002, p. 132). Others write about the power of the peer group to get boys achieving. It can also act as a way in which underachievers support each others’ failure.

Boys respect people who listen, respond and care about them. Above all, teachers should find ways of responding to boys’ comments and carrying out some of their suggestions. This, and carrying out the above principles, should provide boys and teachers with much more fruitful ways of spending those 13,000 hours together.


A. Martin (2002) Improving the Educational Outcomes of Boys. ACT Department of Education, Youth & Family Services.

A. Martin (2003) Enhancing the educational outcomes of boys, Youth Studies Australia, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 27-46.

Shipman and Hicks, cited in West (2002) What is the Matter with Boys? Sydney: Choice Books. See [pdf document]

Malcolm Slade and Faith Trent (2000) What the boys are saying: an examination of the views of boys about declining rates of achievement and retention, International Education Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 201-229.

P. West (1999) Boys, sport and schooling: some persistent problems and some current research, Issues in Educational Research, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 33-54.

P. West (2001) Report on Best Practice in Boys’ Education. Sydney: University of Western Sydney.

P. West (2002) What is the Matter with Boys? Sydney: Choice Books.

P. West (2010) How Do We Know the Pastoral Care Program is Working? Paper given at National Conference on Boys’ Education. The King’s School, Parramatta, NSW, Australia, October.

Further reading

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education, Training and Youth Affairs (2003) Boys: Getting it Right [chair: K. Bartlett]. Canberra: Australian Federal Government.

OECD (2001) Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA . Paris: OECD.