Learning Styles

Why Boys Aren’t Learning

This article is from the TEACH archives, some information may no longer be current.

By Susan Murray

The concept that boys and girls learn differently is not new. Often, what a student naturally enjoys or is inclined toward will determine his or her success in various school subjects; but what if today’s classroom and curriculum structure catered (however unintentionally) to one gender more than the other? Many researchers say this is now the case, with boys facing an upward struggle from primary school on.

For many boys, co-educational public schools can be uncomfortable, unfriendly, unproductive places. Teaching styles and disciplinary habits are often not suited to the average boy and may “lock him into a terrible cycle of punishment and bad behaviour,” writes Dr. William Pollack, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. In learning environments biased against their strengths, boys may become turned off or frustrated and may attempt to have their needs met by seeking negative attention. This rebellion completes the circle of failure, Pollack argues, with many boys labelled as troublemakers or diagnosed with hyperactivity. If Pollack is right, schools may need to upgrade many traditional teaching methods; but what about the girls?

Girls’ education has been a major focus for researchers since the early 1970s. In 1992, the American Association of University Women published a report called “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” The report’s claim of a “girl crisis” was widely publicized, the Ms. Foundation declared a “Take our Daughters to Work Day” and the U.S. Congress passed the $360-million Gender Equity in Education Act. Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher argues that school systems put girls at a disadvantage.

However, the latest statistics indicate boys are in greater danger of failing, not girls. In 2001, the Toronto District School Board reported that 10 per cent more girls than boys achieved Level 3 or 4 (4 being the highest) in standardized reading and writing tests in Grades 3 and 6; and girls were holding their own in math, too. In Alberta, boys maintain a slight edge in math and science but lag far behind girls in language arts. Other provinces report similar gaps.

A University of Chicago study, combining the results of six major surveys on educational achievement spanning 30 years and involving thousands of children, also indicates a similar “gender gap” in education – with boys falling to the bottom of the heap. The study reveals that girls, due to a concerted effort, have made steady gains in math and science while outperforming boys in reading and writing.

According to an international study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Unesco, the problem of boys’ underachievement in literacy is worldwide. The 2003 study suggests that girls out-performed boys in reading at the age of 15 in all 43 countries that participated in the study. Boys were ahead in math and, when it came to science, there was some evidence of a gender gap. In almost all of the countries involved, girls had higher expectations when it came to job prospects and were more likely to see themselves as white-collar workers than boys.

Why the gender gap? The traditional way North American schools teach boys puts them at risk of underachieving, writes Michael Gurian, educator, child advocate and author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! In his book, Gurian argues that reading and writing skills do not come as naturally to boys as to girls. Many problems experienced by boys in the classroom stem from them being normal boys in a setting that is not designed to handle them, he writes. Educators often lack understanding of “typical boy traits” like aggression, verbal and emotional reticence, and interest in objects moving through space. An early elementary school student can learn extensive math, geometry, problem solving and social skills from LEGO, building blocks, and woodworking projects. According to Gurian, current curricula and classroom structures deny boys these opportunities.

American educational researchers William Draves and Julie Coates also blame traditional school structure for holding boys back. In their book, Nine-Shift: Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century, they argue that boys are leading society in this, the age of the Internet. According to them, it is not boys who are the problem, but schools. While boys are developing the skills they will need in the “knowledge jobs” of the future, schools are still preparing students for an industrial age that is passing. Draves and Coates believe schools in the U.S. had to go through a similar adjustment between 1900 and 1920, as the education system adapted to produce in students the skills needed for industrial and office work instead of jobs in the rural economy. During this period, boys dropped out of school in huge numbers. Yet it was often those same young men, experimenting with technology, who led America’s manufacturing boom.

Draves and Coates claim something similar is happening today with computers: boys of almost any age are far more interested in the Internet, video games and technology than girls. They “like taking risks, being entrepreneurial, being collaborative – all the behaviours that lead to success in the workforce today.” But while they are rewarded for their behaviour in the workplace, they are punished in school for being non-conformist, poor listeners, and restless.

It is a seductive theory. According to Jacquelynne Eccles, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who has done substantial research on gender and academic achievement, girls on the whole have always achieved higher grades than boys. “It’s always been true – this is not a new phenomenon,” she says.

Eccles believes that changing grades have more to do with new demographics than the intellectual capacity of the genders. Many socio-economic groups, particularly in the  U.S., are defined by their low educational achievement. This is even more evident among the boys in these groups, who often lack the positive male encouragement necessary to perceive education as a valuable process. In addition, Eccles explains how the supposed “boys crisis” of today also existed in the 1960s, when it became clear that more boys were likely to fail classes and drop out of school.

Pollack’s research on American boys yielded the following results. Eighth-grade boys are 50 per cent more likely to be held back a grade than eighth-grade girls. By high school, 67 per cent of special-education students are boys. Boys receive 71 per cent of all school suspensions and are up to 10 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with a serious emotional disorder (particularly Attention-Deficit Disorder). Boys are now twice as likely as girls to be considered “learning disabled” and boys are up to three times more likely than girls to be the victim of a violent crime and between four and six times more likely to commit suicide.


By the time boys reach high school, another problem appears: peer pressure to shun things academic. Pollack says the boys he interviewed consistently reported that it was not “cool” to be too smart in class or to work hard at academics. Dr. Alan King, professor emeritus with Queen’s University’s faculty of education, explains that the greater tendency of boys to withdraw and not participate is largely due to the allure of adolescent subcultures – such as skaters and punks – that offer teenage boys the legitimacy and acceptance that defies them in the classroom.

Yet, while dropout rates are on the rise, few boys leave unfinished and never return. A more common pattern shows boys to be “stubborn but low achieving,” King says. Starting in Grade 11, these boys start skipping class, then entire days and, later, full weeks. They often return to the classroom and make another go of it, only to disappear again. As a result, these boys typically lack the necessary credits to finish on time and are required to return for a fifth year.

The cycle does not stop at high school, either. According to King – who has done extensive research on secondary school dropout rates – far more women are graduating and going on to college and university than men. In Ontario, this gap has grown even more pronounced since the elimination of Grade 13 in 2003. King says that girls are also doing better in almost every subject, while boys’ scores tend to be near the bottom and top of the spectrum. Girls usually do better on pure tests of ability while boys score higher when evaluation is non- standardized. However, King says boys’ faltering achievement has “more to do with socialization than raw ability.” As he points out, girls typically have more developed career notions and their work habits tend to be passive and more responsive to traditional teaching styles.

Despite the low achievement of boys, King says it has been difficult to create awareness and “make a case for troubled boys.” But change is on the way. In a ground-breaking move, several school boards in Ontario now require that all of their schools develop written plans to help boys catch up with girls. Durham District School Board in Whitby, Ontario requires that all its schools develop more “male-centred” teaching methods
to help boost boys’ literacy. These include inviting male authors to conduct readings and purchasing more reading material geared toward boys. Many other school boards have taken similar steps by recognizing that, in general, boys gravitate toward non-fiction, science fiction, horror or adventure stories, and girls toward general fiction. Ask boys if they read outside of school and they often assume reading applies only to fiction and say no. Clearly, schools need to redefine literacy for all students’ sake, says Barbara Bodkin, programs and services manager with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Another approach is to use different media forms to introduce literacy before boys begin to struggle, Bodkin says. For example, boys in Grade 2 and 3 often prefer drawing cartoons to tell a story. “We need to build on that and not dismiss it,” she says. “Many boys love violence, blood and gore, and we can’t discount that, either. Use of action is part of a writer’s craft.”

Several schools in Toronto, Hamilton and Peterborough (all in Ontario) are also experimenting with single-gender education in Grades 7 and 8. Given the socio-economic factors at play within traditional single-gender environments (typically private schools), the value of this approach varies for both boys and girls and is difficult to track, Bodkin says. While she agrees that it is worth looking at, Bodkin is quick to point out that there is no quick fix. “If you change the structure but not the teaching, it’s not going to have an impact.”

The lack of positive male role models in schools has been a concern of parents and educators for many years now. A career in teaching continues to draw far more women than men, particularly in the primary and elementary grades. While many critics of the current school system highlight this absence as one of the chief problems with boys’ education, Bodkin feels that more male teachers would not change a systemic problem that may begin at home. Within the family setting, it is typically a female (mother, aunt, babysitter) who follows up with homework and reads with kids.

“It needs to start in the home,” she says. “It’s not just in school.” If a father is going shopping, he could ask his son to write up a list of items they need and budget how much money they will have to spend, Bodkin suggests. And, if this kind of positive male guidance cannot be simulated in the classroom, at least it can be nurtured there. Some schools have developed boys’ reading clubs, where older boys mentor younger students to foster reading as both enjoyable and an activity.

Fifteen years ago, it became clear that schools needed to address the ways in which girls learn. At the time, some critics said there could not be change. Now girls have caught up with – even surpassed – boys in the critical areas of math and science where for so long they lagged behind. However, while boys have become the current focus in the classroom, it should not detract from continued work with girls, Bodkin says. “We don’t want to create a supremacy for boys at the expense of girls.”

Continued research on how both genders learn is key to improving educational achievement across the board, Bodkin says. Even now, with girls’ grades on the rise, many female students display little confidence in their abilities. Recent EQAO tests (used to evaluate student performance in Ontario) asked elementary school boys whether they were good at math and sciences; the majority responded “yes.” When girls were asked the same question, most said “no.” In reality, the truth is the reverse.

“We want to make sure we maximize all students’ potential,” Bodkin says. “We don’t want boys to become more like girls. We want human beings to be multi-faceted.”

Originally published in 2004.