Helping Boys Learn

Statistically speaking, boys aren’t doing so well in school. According to recently released data by the National Center for Education Statistics, “disparities in educational and other outcomes persist…for male youth compared to their female peers.”

Compared to girls, boys are less likely to:

  • Achieve reading proficiency
  • Complete high school
  • Attend college
  • Graduate college

Unfortunately, boys are more likely than girls to:

  • Earn D’s and F’s
  • Be suspended
  • Be expelled
  • Drop out

These problems are not confined to the shores of the United States. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) recently analyzed the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores of member countries and found that 15-year-old boys are more likely than 15-year-old girls to fail to achieve baseline proficiency in reading, mathematics and science. Worldwide, boys are more likely than girls to become disengaged from school and more likely to leave school with a low level of skills.

Why are boys lagging behind girls?

Boys in Education

The reasons for boys’ lackluster academic achievement are many. Compared to girls, boys (as a population) don’t exert much academic effort. OECD researchers found that boys, on average, spend one hour less per week doing homework than girls do. Boys are also more likely than girls to play video games, while girls are more likely to read for pleasure.

Yet educators and researchers who study boys say that boys’ apparent lack of effort can stem from boys’ frustration with the current educational system.  In many classrooms today, students are expected to sit quietly. Most learning is done with pencil and paper or at the computer; there is little to no hands-on learning. Recess has been reduced or eliminated in many schools, and because most teachers are female, teachers may unconsciously steer the curriculum in girl-friendly directions.

While teachers are now making an effort to incorporate more nonfiction reading into the classroom, many classes still emphasize emotion-driven novels instead of the action-oriented fare preferred by many boys. Boys who write about battles or wars or animal attacks are likely to be sent to the office, instead of praised for their writing skill.

As a result, many boys feel that school is “not for them.” The OECD report, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior and Confidence, notes that “some have suggested that boys’ motivation at school dissipates from the age of 8 onwards, and that by the age of 10 or 11, 40 percent of boys belong to one of three groups: the ‘disaffected,’ the ‘disappointed’ and the ‘disappeared.’”

Other experts note that today’s emphasis on academics, even in the earliest grades, puts boys at a disadvantage, as boys’ language skills, fine motor skills and self-control typically develop later than the same skills do in girls.

Finally, researchers note that many educators conflate “good behavior” – the ability to sit still, delay gratification, wait turns and organize work – with academic ability. OECD researchers found that girls’ academic grades are often higher than would be expected, given the girls’ PISA scores, while boys’ scores often suggested more intellectual competence than indicated by their grades.

How to help boys learn

Acknowledging the factors that contribute to boys’ lackluster achievement is the first step toward creating an educational environment that will help boys and girls thrive.

Teachers who want to help boys would do well to consider the importance of movement, says educator Edmond Dixon, author of Helping Boys Learn. “The fact is that classrooms are often places of non-movement,” Dixon says. That’s a problem because movement actually helps boys (and girls) release energy and concentrate. Further, Dixon believes that movement has a metaphorical importance to boys.

“Unless males feel that they’re moving forward, they can get really stuck,” Dixon says.

Sadly, many boys do feel stuck in school. They don’t feel as if they’re moving forward, because what they’re experiencing in school has little relevance to their interests, goals and lives. Educators who want boys to learn would do well to tie lessons to boys’ interests and goals. OECD researchers found that, “once young men have opportunities to practice their skills in real-world settings, they often thrive and pick up some of the skills…that they had failed to develop while at school.”

Savvy educators look for ways to merge boys’ interests with the curriculum. That’s a win-win approach, because “one’s willingness to engage in any activity is a function of one’s expectations for success and how much one values it,” says Michael Smith, co-author of Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them.

A video-game loving boy who can demonstrate his understanding of a historical event by re-creating it in Minecraft will probably tackle his assignment with far more enthusiasm – and in far more detail and depth – than he would if he were required to write a five-page paper.

Similarly, educators should embrace boys’ interests. “Knock down the walls between what kids do outside of school and what they do inside of school,” Smith says.

  • A boy who loves farming should be encouraged and allowed to draw on that passion when working on science, math and language arts problems.
  • A boy who creates YouTube videos should be encouraged, not discouraged. You’ll have more luck channeling his interests and skills than you will if you declare YouTube a waste of time.

Making a few simply tweaks in your classroom and educational practice can make a world of difference for the boys in your class – and that’s good news for everyone.

Read on for statistics
  • 12th grade boys’ NAEP reading scores are lower than 12th grade girls’ scores (an average of 282 vs. 292)
  • 19% of males ages 18-24 have not completed high school
  • Only 30% of men ages 25-29 have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 37% of women the same age

From National Center for Education Statistics

  • 14% of boys (vs. 9% of girls) did not attain the PISA baseline level of proficiency in reading, mathematics and science
  • 60% of students identified as low-achievers in all three PISA subject areas – math, reading and science – were male
  • In all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 38 score points
  • Boys in OCED countries are twice as likely as girls to say that school is a waste of time

From Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at and

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