Are Boys Failing School or Is School Failing Boys?

Photo by eren {sea+prairie} via Flickr
Photo by eren {sea+prairie} via Flickr

It’s the ultimate chicken-or-egg question.

According to a comprehensive new report about gender and education:

Compared to girls, boys are more likely to say they think school is a waste of time, show up late to class and generally be less ambitious with their education and career expectations. They also spend less time doing homework and reading for pleasure, and more time playing video games or engaging with technology.

If you have boys, I bet those findings come as no surprise to you. Those sentences pretty much sum up what I see in my home and in my community, and what I’ve heard from dozens of families of boys.

It’s entirely possible to look at those findings and blame boys for their lackluster achievement in school. After all, boys, how do you expect to get ahead if you don’t put some serious effort into your education!

But isn’t it also possible that those findings describe the symptoms, not the cause, of a problem? Perhaps boys are less excited about school and less likely to do homework because school doesn’t meet their needs.

  • Perhaps boys consider school a waste of time because school asks them to spend a ton of time on topics and activities that don’t interest them and appear to have no relevance to their lives, while asking (or requiring) them to ignore, deny and push aside things that do interest them.
  • Perhaps boys show up late for class because they don’t feel comfortable in a place that rarely or never asks them what they’d like to learn, or how they’d like to learn it. Perhaps boys instinctively avoid a place where they’re statistically more likely to get in trouble, to be suspended or expelled.
  • Perhaps boys don’t put time and effort into their homework because, too often, the homework is merely busywork that has nothing to do with their personal interests, agendas or learning styles. Perhaps boys would rather spend their time and energy on activities that are personally meaningful to them.
  • Perhaps boys spend less time reading for pleasure because schools don’t spend much time on reading materials boys enjoy. Perhaps these boys have not been introduced to authors and genres they’d like, and perhaps neither boys nor schools or surveyors count much of the reading boys do. (Surfing the Web requires lots of reading.) And is reading for pleasure really superior to reading for information? To reading for a purpose?
  • Perhaps boys spend a lot of time on video games because video games give them freedom and allow them to exercise their creativity and problem skills in ways that few school do.

Perhaps boys’ response to school is entirely reasonable when we consider the school experience from boys’ point of view.

Recently, I visited the local high school’s Freshman Orientation night with my second son. We wandered through the library, which was filled with tables and students promoting the various extracurricular activities available at school: Spanish Club. Yearbook. Forensics. Show Choir. Soccer. Basketball. Baseball. Student Council. Football. Track and Field. Cross Country. Band.

A fellow mom of an 8th grade boy cornered me. “What are you making your son do?”

I paused, unsure how to answer. Making him do?

“Well,” I finally said (with my son at my shoulder), “I’m sure he’ll play baseball.” (Said son has played baseball since age 6 and loves it.)

“Oh, that’s right. Your son does sports,” the other mom said. “My son’s not in anything.”

Clearly, this mom wants her son to be involved. She heard the school administrators say that kids who are involved in school activities are more likely to enjoy school, more likely to feel a part of the school community, and more likely to do well. Her heart is in the right place.

But as I walked around the room — seeing kids I’ve known for years — I realized that the school’s offerings don’t match up with the boys’ interests.

“Hey,” one kid said to mine, nudging him. “Where’s the fishing club?”

Huh. No fishing club. No class either, I’m sure, that uses fishing to help students learn about ecology or geography or physiology, history or language arts. My son, an avid fisherman, would thrive in that class. So would the friend who nudged him and many of their fishing buddies. School doesn’t work that way, though.

Similarly, there’s no video game club or class that uses video games to teach coding, storytelling, history, geography or any of a thousand other things. The boy who’s “not in anything?” He’s an avid — and intelligent — gamer. He creates mods. Uploads content to YouTube. And communicates with other gamers worldwide via the Internet.

The shame here, in my opinion, isn’t that he’s not in a school activity; the shame is that far too many schools marginalize boys like him by essentially telling them that their interests are worthless. Instead of encouraging boys’ interests, school too often tell them their interests are a waste of time.

What a waste!

According to the OCED report, the one about gender and education, “boys download music, films, games and software from the internet more than girls.” Boys are also more likely to upload their own content (which means they’re creating content) and more likely to read news online.

What a wasted opportunity! This report — as well as conversations with and observations of our boys — tells us what our boys like, what they value. Yet everyday, far too many of them are herded into schools that completely ignore the boys’ interests and needs.

No wonder the boys are disengaged. No wonder they spend their time and energy on non-school related activities. And no wonder their grades reflect their lack of interest and disengagement.

We can fix this. Unfortunately, I think the recommendations in the report don’t go nearly far enough. The report’s five recommendations are:

  1. Give students greater choice in what they read.
  2. Allow some video gaming, but homework comes first
  3. Train teachers to be aware of their own gender bias
  4. Build girls self-confidence
  5. Help students look ahead

I’d recommend adding a #6: Create classes that respect boys’ interests and learning styles.

What do you think? Do you think boys fail in school because they don’t put in the effort, or do you think boys are failing in school because schools are failing boys? How do you think schools can better serve boys?

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

The Building Boys Bulletin is funded by direct subscriptions from readers like you. If you’d like the full experience, please consider becoming a paying subscriber.

“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

You May Also Enjoy

6 Responses

  1. Thank you for boldly addressing this issue and getting to the core. I have 3 nephews ages 3-9-11. I worry about their future without progress in this very area of education as you described. To help address these issues and others like this, this is why we need a White House Council on Boys and Men! See
    Molly K Olson,
    Leading Women for Shared Parenting (,
    Center for Parental Responsibility (jp*******@cp****.org)
    F.A.I.R. Solutions LLC (mediation and case consultant –

  2. Fantastic entry today! i LOVED the example of the video game club, really so true–in fact video gamers can get scholarships to college now, so being part of a gaming club can be a fantastic way for schools to show boys that they are accepted for their own culture. Love it!

  3. I just received my 6 year old sons 2nd quarter 1st grade report card and it broke my heart. He received all two’s which means approaching gr level standards. He did not get any threes which means meets gr level standards. I wanted to cry because what this means for him is more tutoring, and more school work after school and on the weekends. This also means taking more kid time away from him. He, like most boys, is extremely active. He was riding a two wheel bicycle at the early age of two. His gross motor skills are those of a 9 year old. He hates school and tells me all the time that school is boring. Homework and review are always a struggle and a fight. The only part of school that he likes is recess. Both my husband and I work full time so our time together with him is so short during the week due to cooking dinner, and getting ready for bed. Recently I’ve been wondering if he has ADHD or ADD. Finding your website has really helped me see that he is just a typical little boy and I’m so relieved.

  4. I have known about this for years! I have been a teacher for 13 years and will soon be a director of special education and pupil services. I recently did a data analysis or my district and found that the males in the district are failing miserably. I intend to schedule in-services that address this issue. We have to start somewhere. I know that many times in-services happen one day and are forgotten the next. My plan will be to make this an ongoing process. My heart goes out to boys, I see this everyday in my classroom. If we all try to take a stand and encourage our school districts to look at this issue we can begin to make change.

  5. Schools are not failing boys (aside from more aggressive, less supportive treatment that has been going on), and boys are failing but not due to lack of effort or care.
    The huge elephant that is not seen is due to our false genetic models of learning that do not allow for the many harmful effects from differential treatment of Male and Female children from infancy through adulthood. In combination with this lack of insight is the total misunderstanding of average stress as only something occurring only from some present mental or physical work.
    To understand this, “we must redefine our average stress as many layers of mental work we carry with us that takes away real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, concentrate, and enjoy the learning process. This differential treatment creates very real differences in learning by individual and by group.
    The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, (very little 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, teachers and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, vocabulary, sentence structure; also higher average stress that hurts learning and motivation to learn; also more activity due to need for stress relief; also 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 through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games and sports to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom.
    Since we as girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We enjoy much more continuous care and support from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things: lower average stress for more ease of learning (we do enjoy much freedom of expression that make us look less stable at times); lower muscle tension for better handwriting/motivation; higher social vocabulary/low stress for reading/motivation; much more positive, trust/communication with adults, teachers, peers; and much more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased and more differentiated over time. My learning theory and article on the Male Crisis will go to all on request or can be read from my home site.

  6. If they taught history with video games the boys would learn the wars and strategies and geography based on the battles. A part of that could be them strategizing how they would have fought a war based on where, climate, and everything else and create their own game on that. Grades would be based on that. It would also teach them for their future. Math could be the same. Language as well. Computers are here to stay and while so many of us that are older don’t know how to use them, kids do.

Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males

Building Boys

You can purchase the newest book from Building Boys at the following websites: