Raising his hand skywards, a young boy senses a few sniggers around the room. In this atmosphere, he’s committing a deadly sin: showing enthusiasm for learning by volunteering an answer to a question. He might get away with this infraction once but if he carries on doing it he’ll probably end up getting stuck with a label that most boys are keen to avoid. Soon, he’ll become known as a swot.
As a whole, boys do worse than girls at all stages of their primary and secondary education. Boys complete less homework than girls. They read fewer books for pleasure and read less frequently than girls. They are more likely to get into confrontation with their teachers and are more likely to be excluded from school. Boys are increasingly less likely to go to university than girls. Indeed, some educational analysts predict that even in GCSE STEM subjects – seen by many as the last bastion of male academic excellence, where boys traditionally outperform girls – may see a fluctuating statistical trend over the next 5-10 years, meaning that girls will start to outperform boys in those subjects.
These depressing figures seemingly point to some kind of male academic deficit. For decades now teachers across the nation have wrestled with the “The Boy Question”. Why do boys seem to struggle with reading and writing? Why do some boys misbehave in lessons and display a sloppy attitude towards studying? Why do many boys seem so lazy and apathetic?
Could it be that boys just aren’t as clever? Perhaps they’re more immature? Might we pin the blame on testosterone?
In reality, one key factor that explains boys’ underperformance in school compared to girls has little to do with apparent biological difference. Rather than perceiving boys’ anti-school attitudes as genetic in nature, we can gain a much clearer insight of the reasons for male academic under attainment by reflecting on a social phenomenon that is both tangible and ever-present: peer pressure.
Only swots do homework
The rules of peer pressure dictate that boys who court popularity must avoid doing homework. If they do complete their homework, they must make it obvious to their friends that they were only doing it under duress through the threat of a punitive sanction. For many boys, the same applies to working hard during lessons. Doing just enough to avoid a negative consequence is usually acceptable but showing enthusiasm by, for example, voluntarily asking for extra work or putting a hand up to answer a question, risks going against the norm. And displaying signs of such deviant behaviour can lead to mockery and ostracism.
As a result of the pervasive influence of peer pressure among male students – including those from advantaged households populated with sharp-elbowed, deeply aspirational parents – there’s an unspoken rule that academic success must be achieved without appearing to show much effort and without any obvious signs of scholarly dedication.
So what can explain the particularly acute influence of peer pressure on boys? Why are boys willing to self-handicap their own learning? Why are many of them so desperate to avoid the label of nerd or geek? From an early age, boys receive subtle cues that obedience and bookishness are essentially feminine traits. Traditional, some would call it toxic, masculinity decrees that “real men” get their hands dirty with physical labour, rather than succumbing to “effeminate” behaviour like putting your head down and getting good grades.
Indeed, one important Belgian study from 2015 contended that stereotypical attitudes about masculinity and femininity contribute significantly to the different educational outcomes between genders. Girls in the Belgian study who felt the burden of gender conformity – to behave in a typical “girly” way – increased their study efforts, which heightened their belief that they would succeed in school. On the other hand, boys who were influenced by the pressure of gender conformity – to behave in a “laddish” way – felt they were unable to display visible signs of effort. Inevitably, this has calamitous consequences on boys’ academic confidence in the long term.
Overcoming peer pressure in the classroom
Peer pressure exists. And it doesn’t seem to be showing any sign of going away. So classroom teachers will need to use subtle pedagogical strategies to mitigate against its insidious influence. In environments where the worst excesses of peer pressure are present, motivating switched-off boys is a real challenge. But there are certain steps that classroom teachers can take to ensure that boys adopt an aspirational attitude rather than being cowed by concerns about what their peers think of them. Here are my top five techniques for motivating boys to succeed in lessons:
1. Have high behaviour expectations and insist on periods of silence
Despite harbouring a deep desire to learn at school, I avoided work and disrupted lessons to meet the expectations of the male in-crowd. Looking back now, as a teacher considering the best way to motivate boys like the younger me, I’m not surprised that the subjects I did best in at school tended to be taught by disciplinarians. Whether I liked the subject or not was something of an irrelevance.
Teachers who were strict, and ensured that we worked hard throughout each lesson, created a safe space for me to concentrate fully and complete my work unhindered. By contrast, lessons involving teachers who weren’t inclined or were unable to enforce high behaviour standards resulted in me feeling obliged to join in the disruption and neglect my work.
Creating an environment where there is no alternative to hard work, therefore, is a key aspect of ensuring boys flourish, despite the spectre of peer pressure looming in the background. After all, when I walked out of these scholarly and orderly lessons, I was able to excuse my compliant and productive attitude. What other choice did I have?
2. Give homework careful consideration
The rationale behind public sanctions for non-completion of homework is obvious. A teacher sets the task; it’s compulsory, so there will need to be explicit consequences for those that fail to submit work on time. To deter others from failing to complete homework in future, the punishments will be read out in class, or in a “list of shame” assembly section. To encourage those that did complete the homework, the teacher will celebrate their efforts through rewards or public praise.
And yet, given our knowledge of the effects of peer pressure, this approach can backfire disastrously. Some boys want to advertise to the world that they haven’t done their homework and are willing to risk a detention to gain the approval of their anti-school peers. Others, meanwhile, will have done the work but would very much prefer the teacher not to announce this fact to the expectant ears of their ridicule-ready classmates.
To motivate boys to submit homework on time, I’d recommend reconsidering how you collect in homework and how you deal with non-completers. Quietly circulating the class during an extended activity, and collecting in work away from the glare of judgemental classmates works very well, in my experience. Boys who haven’t completed work don’t get a platform to display their lack of effort. While those who have diligently completed their homework – having done it in secret while their mates were playing on their games consoles – can hand it in surreptitiously, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be broadcast loudly to the rest of the class. You will, of course, need to follow your school’s policy for not completing homework. Boys must finish homework if they are to succeed in school. But keeping these sanctions as discreet as possible is usually more motivational than public rebukes.
3. Encourage boys to ask for help in subtle ways
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that in classroom environments, boys are less likely than girls to seek assistance, even when they have little idea what they are meant to be doing. One fascinating study of primary school children found that girls were three times more likely to ask for help during maths activities. But why do boys show such reluctance to ask for support and guidance?
On one level, they are concerned about perceptions of their ability. Or, to put it much more colloquially, they are worried that they’ll be teased by their mates for being thick. Conversely, intelligent boys who repeatedly seek clarification and reassurance feel anxious that they’ll be seen as too keen, viewed by their peers as shamelessly asking for assistance rather than coasting by in a state of stuck serenity.
Teachers also need to stop uttering the fateful words “Does anyone have any questions?”. This very rarely elicits any useful responses, for the reasons explored above. Instead, use a more nuanced approach to find out which boys are struggling with which aspects of learning. Using a mini-whiteboard to highlight misconceptions is one helpful way of achieving this aim. Alternatively, I like to give students post-it notes, on which they can write anonymous questions. With no opt-out allowed, it enables me to discover what boys are secretly yearning to find out but were too embarrassed to ask.
4. Be wary of using praise
When teaching a group of apparently disengaged boys, it’s tempting to try and overcome their lack of motivation through a fusillade of praise. But throwing praise around, like confetti to the wind, is unlikely to have the desired impact.
Research has shown that when a teacher gives praise for successful performance on an easy task, students don’t generally see this as a celebration of their efforts. Instead, they usually interpret this as evidence that the teacher has low expectations of their academic potential. Boys will quickly see through your attempts to reward basic task completion and bog standard contributions to the lesson. Rather than boosting their motivation, they will be left feeling embarrassed and deflated in front of their peers.
This phenomenon reaches its apotheosis in the celebration assembly, or in its classroom equivalent, the doling out of a star-of-the-week certificate. Over time, schools need to work on their ethos to ensure they create a culture where peers celebrate the work of their classmates. But in the meantime, boys who are trying to do well in school while simultaneously being part of the popular gang will not thank teachers for thrusting them into the limelight.
5. Talk to boys about the impact of peer pressure
It’s hard being a boy who wants to do well in school but feels unable to show it. Deep down, they have aspirations of a successful academic career. Yet they also want to be liked and feel the weight of gender conformity on their young shoulders. Letting them know, in private conversations, that you understand what they are going through will help them to recognise that you want what’s best for them. This doesn’t mean that you’ll accept sloppy work and a switched-off attitude. But it does mean that you might cut them some slack in certain regards.
You’ll be inclined to emphasise the consequences of their self-sabotage. Teenage friendship groups are often fleeting, while the effects of poor academic performance can last a lifetime. Focusing on short-term goals, however, is more useful than discussions about intangible long-term aspirations. What steps can we take to improve your knowledge in this subject? is more practical in motivation terms than What do you want to be when you grow up? Careful seating plans, sensitive conversations with parents and subtle guidance on effective study skills will have more motivational impact than lectures about wasted talent.
Responding to a question that you’ve made him answer, a young boy relaxes in the sanctuary of your lesson. In this atmosphere, he’s just another pupil contributing to the lesson. Previously, he averted his eyes and resisted all opportunities to reveal his academic prowess. But now he feels safe joining in. Now he’s motivated. Very soon, he’s going to become an academic success story.
Mark Roberts is Director of Research and English teacher at Carrickfergus Grammar School. His new book The Boy Question is published by Routledge on 6 July 2021. Save 20% through the Routledge website with discount code APR20.