Engaging Boys – A Practical Guide

[Updated 27 October 2020]

Why is it so difficult to engage boys in the classroom?

Boys are treated like defective girls”, so says psychologist and author Michael Thompson. I think he’s right. Have you noticed that boys are frequently compared to girls with regards to exam scores, classroom behaviour, the standard of work produced and neatness of presentation? Many boys fail to perform as well in these areas,  leading to ‘poor’ performance in formal examinations where it counts the most. Engaging boys to raise their attainment is clearly a huge challenge.

So, are boys just not as good as girls when it comes to formal assessment? Or is the system unfairly rigged to favour girls over boys? Let’s see.

Myth: “All boys are the same”

This is simply not true. Just look at the last group of boys you taught and their wide spectrum of attributes. Boys are often excitable, creative, loud and headstrong. However, there are quiet boys too, who lack confidence, struggle creatively and who seem distant when you try to engage them. There are even quiet boys who are incredibly confident and loud boys who are overcompensating due to their own perceived weaknesses. The difficulty in deciding which “category” they fit into creates a real challenge for educators. Moving away from “categorising” boys at all and instead, understanding how and why we treat them differently, is the beginning of the solution.

Should we just train the boys to be like the girls?

This is more complex than it might seem, but the short answer is no.

Many of the boys I teach read less often and consequently fewer books than the girls, particularly fiction books. Why is this? Is it because boys don’t enjoy reading? No. Is it a lack of quality authors writing for young male audiences? No. Engaging boys differently to girls is crucial and here’s why.

Girls are typically brought up in a different way to boys. Their toys and games are different. The heavily gendered characters and storylines in the cartoons they watch are very different. The societal roles they are expected to play, due to gender, differs significantly.

This causes a knock-on effect. At school, when boys and girls are given the same task to do, they will naturally approach it in different ways, due to the way they have been conditioned by their environment. 

Girls are often more collaborative in their approach to tasks, seeking guidance and support, constantly engaging in a feedback loop with their peers and teachers. Girls are encouraged to do this through the type of play where conversations are a key element. Discussion is seen as a positive activity, where active listening and reflecting is considered as important as speaking.

Conversely, boys are often more solitary, waiting until they have completed a task (to whatever standard) to then present their finished product to others for feedback. Once given feedback, boys then get on with solitary work again. Boys are not usually encouraged by fellow boys, nor do they typically seek encouragement. Asking for support is often perceived by boys as a weakness. Consequently, there is very little social incentive to truly discuss, listen and reflect. Egos are fragile and it’s just not worth the risk to their reputation Their style of work and play is therefore heavily dominated by competition and shows of individual strength, be it physically, or through verbal argument.

In general, at least in Western societies, girls are also better prepared for tasks involving empathy, evaluation of evidence and being diplomatic, as those skills are built into the types of “play” activities they participated in when they were younger. Have you ever witnessed the complex social skills demonstrated during a dolls tea party?

Now, compare that scene to a boy smashing a Lego house with a dinosaur. Which skills do you think will benefit those children in a formal examination? Boys are expected to grow up to be brave, resilient, confident leaders who take no prisoners. These are useful traits in many areas but less so in formal examinations.

Five strategies to engage boys in the classroom 

1. Stop valuing “girly” attributes over “laddish” attributes

Let’s face it, in most cases neither of those terms is used in a positive way. However, we teachers often forget that stories about aliens destroying a football stadium can have as much literary value as a love poem. We arbitrarily celebrate the types of media that girls tend to gravitate towards and we negatively stereotype the media that boys gravitate towards. The result is that boys become used to hearing that certain things they value are worthless. They might love pirate stories, but after being told that they shouldn’t read them all the time, they eventually stop reading, because they aren’t interested in reading anything else. Boys then lose interest in their favourite things and many lose interest in general.

There is nuance to this view though. By playing to what boys enjoy reading about, we can actually do harm. As teachers, we should be broadening their “cultural capital” and expanding their knowledge of subjects beyond their own experience. If we don’t do this, then we limit the range of examples and consequently the network of ideas, or schema, that boys need, in order to learn new knowledge with ease. The more we teach them new things, the easier it becomes to teach them even more new things. So hold your boys to a high standard and make sure they use academic vocabulary, explain their examples clearly and show detailed reasoning behind their decisions.

2. Be careful how you use competition to engage boys

Boys often love competition. However, this is also a lazy stereotype. Some boys hate it and would rather work collaboratively, rather than in an adversarial way. Not only that but as I wrote earlier, boys need to learn the skills of collaboration in our classrooms, as they often won’t be taught this explicitly in their “home” environment.

Be patient with boys here, it often won’t come as naturally as it does with girls – the boys haven’t had anywhere near as much practice! Competition is great for engaging some boys but you must include opportunities for collaboration within the competitive environment too.

3. Frequently encourage and consistently use feedback

Feedback is crucial for engaging boys. The earlier in their lives that boys learn to give and accept feedback, without any fear of perceived weakness, the better they will perform and the faster they will progress. The feedback must be a continual process, like a conversation – not just an event at the end of a piece of work. As by then, the feedback is too late in many respects.

Once boys are able to use the feedback process more naturally, they will begin to be able to develop deeper self-evaluation skills and may even engage more often in independent learning too. This helps to narrow the gap between boys and girls, as well as between the weaker and stronger boys.

Praise frequently, but based on student effort, rather than on attainment. This way, your boys will feel as though they can take risks and attempt challenging work without worrying about your reaction to a wrong answer. Boys are very good at detecting insincere praise though, so only give it when it is due, or it loses its impact.

4. Ask better questions and more of them

Improving your questioning in the classroom is one of the best ways to raise attainment. The teachers who make a more positive impact on attainment than their colleagues ask more questions and they plan their questions carefully. This drives higher attainment for boys and girls alike. However, boys often shy away from explaining the rationale behind some of their answers. For this reason, it is crucial for teachers to ask boys in particular how they arrived at their answers.

By getting boys to demonstrate the process behind their decision-making, they will clarify their knowledge in their own minds and develop their confidence and resilience. This makes it much more likely that they will buy into the next challenging task, especially if it relies on having strong prior knowledge.

Ask questions such as “why is that the answer?”. Alternatively, show wrong answers and ask boys to comment on “why is this the wrong answer?” By introducing a range of examples and, crucially, non-examples to their schema, you will play to boys’ eagerness to show you up as an authority, while actually building their own reputations as a successful academic student.

5. The Teacher-Student Relationship

In my experience, having a positive relationship with the boys you teach makes the biggest difference. This isn’t rocket science, we should be aiming for this in all of our students. However, when boys are often boisterous, the positive teacher-student relationship we need and they often crave can be difficult to maintain. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind, though, can be the one thing that makes the difference in the long-run.

Don’t expect the boys you teach to be as naturally compliant as the girls. Work hard at engaging the boys, through challenging work and even just by having a conversation with them as they work. Find out what makes them tick and show your interest in their lives. The boys I teach respond particularly well to this and it has made a huge difference to the attitude they show in my lessons and towards their work in general.

Ultimately though, set high expectations and support them in living up to them. If they go off-task after a few minutes, then chunk the learning into short tasks to help them. If they struggle with tasks involving extended reading, then practice and model extended reading frequently, so that they can improve over the long term. Live-model what answers should look like and show how to construct those answers, so that boys know how to start. Visibly investing in these areas will show to the students that you are in it for the long-haul, that you have their interests at heart and in response, they will readily buy into what you are trying to do.

Recommended Reading

The best book to read on the subject of teaching boys has to be Boys Don’t Try: Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, by Matt Pinket and Mark Roberts. They take the reader through the research basis for their understanding of why boys often underachieve in education and how we can overcome that problem. Their strategies are very easy to implement and frequent anecdotes help you to see how to apply those strategies in your own classroom. It changed my own classroom teaching and the impact has been significant. 

[Affiliate link]

Any thoughts…?

Do you have any tips on how you engage boys in your lessons? Leave a comment!

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: