Are Boys Failing School or Is School Failing Boys?

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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?

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