Boys On The Side (Why Schools Are Failing Boys & What To Do About It)

(Originally published: February 2012)
English: The schools in Norrköping were for a ...

Here’s a statistic that shouldn't be: teenage boys are three to four times more likely to take their own lives than girls are. Granted, the research is in its infancy, and most of it is coming out of the United States, but there is something fundamentally wrong here. And it isn't with the research. And it isn't an ‘American problem’ (whatever that is). The problem is this: whatever is causing these young men to decide on suicide, it must – at least in part – be related to their experiences at school. (Since time spent at school amounts to at least a third of their waking hours.)

Boys these days are also more likely to be involved in disciplinary procedures, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go on to tertiary education, more likely to be diagnosed with learning problems like ADHD, and more likely to be put on to ‘attention-focusing’ medication. In some of the top schools in the US (ones where entrance exams are required) there is a form of ‘affirmative action’ for boys because not enough of them qualify to get in. Girls pip them by at least 20%. Also in the US, girls are more likely to take Advanced Programmes in every subject – except Physics (Peg Tyre: The Trouble With Boys). And every year, the gap seems to be widening. This is not because boys are ‘slower’, or because they are boys, as boys will be. It is not a ‘quirk’ particular to a gender – one to go along with ‘slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails’. And why do these problems disappear suddenly when these boys become men and enter the ‘real world’? Why does the ‘boy problem’ only really exist while they are at school? Could it be because of school?

This is not about gender equality… it is about brains. Our brains are wired differently. And this neurological difference is especially noticeable in teenagers. The science is a little more complex, but reduced to bite-sized chunks it is this: teenage boys need to move, interact and be challenged to learn. If they are not physically engaged with their work, their brains go into a kind of ‘screen-saver’ mode. They don’t quite switch off, but they are also not entirely there. Girls need visual appeal, structure, emotional engagement and verbal exchanges. This is not about gender stereotypes; it is about physical differences in the brain. And yes, there are exceptions, but this does not mean that the general findings should be dismissed. The exception tests the rule, but the rule holds.

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And in most of the world’s classrooms, teaching methodologies are verbally and visually biased. Teachers talk and show. Students have to sit still, focus and respond when asked a question. After few minutes of this, many boys begin powering down. Their brains are telling them that because a low level of physical interaction is required, they do not need to be on full alert. This is not a choice, it is practically an autonomic function… it is simply how their brains work. But put them onto the sports field or in front of a computer screen and they can concentrate for hours.

All of this goes some way towards explaining why boys do not do as well as girls at school. But it does not explain why things are getting worse – or why things can get so bad for many of our best and brightest young men that they choose to end their lives. There is early anecdotal evidence that this is happening around the world – from South Korea to South Africa, from the United Kingdom to the UAE. Either things are suddenly getting worse for boys away from school, or they are getting worse in school – or perhaps even both. I very much doubt that the first option is true, and that our school system is blameless. And if this is so, we need to be shocked and deeply remorseful – because if teachers and educational systems play even a small role in teenage suicides we need to damned well stop it, and stop it now.

In class: Teacher talks, teacher shows pictures teacher asks questions. By the second step, many boys will start to lose focus. They cannot answer the obligatory ‘revision’ questions – usually thrown their way because the teacher suspects they are not concentrating – they get shouted at. Term assessments take place. Many boys do not do as well as they should. More admonitions, more recriminations. Reports go home with comments like ‘Not achieving to his potential – needs to settle down in class and concentrate.’ (This is teacher-speak for ‘he is lazy, not very clever and his prospects in life will be limited unless he works very hard’.) Parents are called in. The message again and again: ‘This boy needs to sit still and concentrate, he needs to cut down on sports and go home and study.’ Entirely well-meaning parents reinforce the message at home. In some cases, form tutors and principals get involved. And in many cases, things do not improve.

Is it any wonder that a percentage of boys will start to see themselves as utter failures and begin to internalise the messages they get from their earnest teachers and their caring parents? What these adults think is good for the boy might actually be very, very bad indeed. Most boys will hang on and get through it and then begin to thrive in their second and third years at university, or at work. But some will not. And even if it is just one who does not, this is not an acceptable ‘externality’. Children’s lives should not be figures in an equation.

I am not saying that girls should be left out of the picture. We need to work just as hard not to alienate them. They need just as much love and support as our boys do. The point is “just as much”… but frankly, even a little bit is better than absolutely nothing. Just like a good teacher allows for multiple intelligences by varying modalities, I am calling for just a little more ‘boy-focused teaching’. It can be every other lesson. Or even two lessons a week. But it needs to happen. And the good news is that ‘boy-focused teaching’ is covered by many of the newly emerging pedagogical approaches being bandied around by the brightest lights in the education world.

What follows is my list of ten suggestions for teachers to try with their boys. A word of caution, though: each approach needs to be carefully managed. Just like any other new methodology would be carefully introduced, these may need to be contextualised and tweaked before they will work in engaging our boys fully.


  1. Allow them to doodle. Doodling is a fantastic way for a boy to keep his mind buffered and ready for action.
  2. Let them get up, let them fidget, let them rock on their chairs and give them something to pick at. If you manage the process well and you know why you are allowing them to do it, it will not disturb your lesson.
  3. Let them move. Give them gym balls to sit on instead of chairs. Set up a few bar tables or ledges in your class and allow them to stand.
  4. For goodness sake, try a few ‘kinaesthetic’ lessons. Even if you throw a ball around while you’re teaching, or you have them demonstrate a principle with a series of movements. Look into what other teachers around the world are doing and give it a try. Just move!
  5. Invade their space. Don’t stand still. Move around your class room. For a boy, this is like wiggling a mouse to keep your computer screen from switching over to low power mode. Boys are very spatially aware. Make them follow you, but don’t make your patterns too predictable.
  6. There is a reason boys like Physics and IT above all else, because it allows them to engage with what it is they’re learning. They become active participants in knowledge building, instead of passive scribes. Let them test and solve problems. Let them tinker and experiment and try to develop solutions. If you’re telling him all of the answers, why does he need to bother to think?
  7. Flip the classroom. Give them the lesson to do at home. Whether it be a video or a podcast or a bit of reading – and tell them that if they like, they can do it at the gym, or while tinkering with something. And then let them do their homework in class.
  8. Let them use digital devices. Yes, even while you are talking. They are moving, they are engaged, they are learning.
  9. Do not encourage under-achieving boys to drop sports. Time-management can be an issue, but physical activity is an absolute necessity. I would even go so far as to say, where possible, that sports should be compulsory. Besides the neurological benefits, there are health benefits and enormous social and emotional gains to be made by being part of a team.
  10. Project-based learning allows boys to explore, to engage and to think. Try it.

Please talk to them about their own learning styles and their brains. Teach them strategies to maximise their own unique strengths and abilities and tell them that one size does not fit all genders.

To re-iterate: I contend that schools are (at least in part) responsible for boys doing badly at school. I have tried to make the case that it is very likely that schools may even be causing some boys deep emotional distress. In the classroom, teachers may be doing more harm to many of our boys than good. (No doubt, often with the best intentions.) This needs to stop. We do not need to wait for more voluminous research. We do not need to wait for policies to change. We might be able to watch idly while boys do worse and worse academically, but we cannot stand smug if even one more boy decides to end his young life because he can long longer live with being at school. This is not an academic article – this is an emotional appeal to all teachers, principals, school boards and parents: look after our boys. Please.

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About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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2 Responses to Boys On The Side (Why Schools Are Failing Boys & What To Do About It)

  1. Olivia says:

    I understand your trying to fix this from the inside but I think it’s too little too late. The whole school thing needs a re-think. Maybe boys- young men- should not be in school for so many years. Maybe adulthood has been artificially delayed because of school. And maybe, in that light, the term drop-out is a misnomer.

  2. slowchatpe says:

    This blog is spot on!! Teachers need to have their students move more and talk to them less.

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