I’ve been writing and doing research on boys’ learning for more than twenty years. It’s been such a long struggle! Why is this so?
After all these years, we are still stuck. We still can’t agree on where to start. The feminist approach wants to blame boys for many problems in school. Boys are noisy, they play up, annoy teachers and stop good kids from learning. Any time we draw attention to boys’ difficulties in school, these people raise objections. Which boys do we mean? Are we imagining that all boys are the same? Why aren’t we focusing on girls? Are we misogynistic? Don’t men have all the advantages anyway? This approach I call “put up a straw man and then knock him down”. It’s often favoured by people who want to preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, the arch-male approach wants to champion boys at all costs and blame feminism for all men’s ills. It sounds a bit like “Now in my day…” Neither of these approaches will get us far.
Look at some facts about boys from various parts of the world. First, in the UK, boys are excluded from schools three times more often than girls. Afro-Caribbean boys are the group most excluded. Second, American boys are drawn into football because they want to be masculine at all cost; but we hear that US football players are at great risk of high blood pressure and suffer horrific rates of concussion. Third, a conference at Montego Bay, Jamaica heard a few years ago about boys leaving school far too early. And this was happening right around the Caribbean. Fourth, boys in the UK are reported as having a manic desire for a body with a ‘six-pack’ and big muscles. And boys I speak to in Australia complain that what they hear too often is “sit down, shut up, write this down”. Everywhere we look, boys are squashed into a narrow idea of what it means to be male. And that doesn’t have much to do with school as they know it.
These problems among boys are real. Boys most at risk are dark-skinned boys: teachers mark them as troublemakers- a pattern we can see in the US as typified by the Trayvon Martin case. So teachers tend to assign boys lower grades not commensurate with their test scores, in a study done at the University of Georgia, USA. There is a gender disparity: and it consistently favours girls.
Working-class boys are also at risk. Their poor grasp of complex language and lower ability to control anger makes them unpopular in the staffroom; and thus a boy is told by a teacher “watch it, son- I’ve heard about you”. So boys give up. British boys comment that teachers prefer girls anyway: “they work harder, look nicer, and smell better”.
It’s eleven years since the Australian Government published a report by a House of Representatives standing committee, Boys: Getting it Right. True to form, some anaemic academics wrote a critique headed Boys: Getting it Wrong. The report called for solid re-education of teachers. Instead, teachers got a pre-packaged set of hundreds of Powerpoint slides. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Let’s try to show teachers how to improve classroom interaction. And what do you do? Give them Death by Powerpoint! Some improvements in instruction have occurred, but it’s still too much teacher talk, too little pupils learning by DOING. The “Building the Education Revolution” program was billions of dollars wasted. Money poured into the big construction companies. Principals wept when they saw the result: school halls – really, oversized barns which rarely suited school purposes. And still teachers talk on, often failing to give boys enough challenge, risk and adventure. No wonder boys turn away from schoolwork to try skateboarding, video games and paintball. These provide excitement and let boys feel male.
One problem among boys is being studied in Australia. A Royal Commission has been announced into institutional abuse. A preliminary investigation has begun in the Newcastle-Hunter Valley region. Many of the victims are girls. But one pattern cannot escape notice. Many boys are vulnerable. They may have fathers who are dead or absent, physically or emotionally. Boys were brought close to religious priests and brothers as altar boys or pupils in Catholic schools. And too many have been subjected to abuse which often scarred them for life. Far too many have been picked on as sexual victims by so-called holy men. Many others were beaten often, for no reason, or some slight disobedience. So many of these boys became damaged. There have been countless cases of self-harm, alcoholism and suicide. Surely this is a stain on our so-called civilized societies.
It is high time that scholars stopped trying to pretend that boys have no disadvantages in schools. It’s time to stop stalling and ask why boys’ schools careers are so often shorter and less fruitful than girls’ are. Time to ask why boys so often tell us they just come to school to play sport and be with their mates. Because they say the rest is “ a complete waste of time”.
Parents of boys must demand that schools do more from their boys. Ask more insistently: what does this school offer my son? What help does he get when he is bullied? What’s being done for different learning styles? Don’t be fobbed off. Our sons need a fruitful and enjoyable education, no less than our daughters.