What about the boys?

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There is much to like in Barbara Oakley’s recent opinion piece for the New York Times. Oakley is an engineering professor at Oakland university in the U.S. and her views on teaching are refreshingly well-informed. We will get to those later but we need to deal with something odd first, Here’s a quote from her article:

“A large body of research has revealed that boys and girls have, on average, similar abilities in math. But girls have a consistent advantage in reading and writing and are often relatively better at these than they are at math, even though their math skills are as good as the boys’.”

Having read that, you might think that the article is about how we might improve the reading and writing skills of boys, but it’s not. Instead, Oakley is concerned that girls’ relative ability in literacy will convince them that they are no good at maths, even though they are, and so they will avoid practising maths, not fulfil their mathematics potential and shut-off future science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) career options.

That is perhaps a fair point, but it does seem a little like there’s an elephant on the couch and nobody is offering it any biscuits. There are many articles and programmes addressing the idea of encouraging girls into STEM careers. Unlike Oakley’s piece, a lot of these efforts are misguided, but we cannot claim a lack of attention. And this attention may be paying off. In Australia and New Zealand, for instance, we now have more female medical students than male medical students.

In contrast, where are all those opinion pieces and programmes aimed at addressing the literacy gap between boys and girls?

Taking a purely instrumental view of education as preparation for future work, relatively few careers require scientific and mathematical knowledge when compared to the much greater number that require good literacy skills. So on the surface at least, it appears to be the bigger issue.

Even if, for whatever reason, you are not particularly interested in the career prospects of these boys, there is a wider societal impact. Economically, if we do not maximise the educational potential of our population then we can expect to be poorer as a society. And higher levels of education are associated with social benefits such as lower levels of violence. You may even be inclined to think that higher levels of education are good for democracy.

A clue as to why we might not be focusing on this particular gender gap may be found in some of the responses I received when I tweeted about Oakley’s article. It seems that people are quite ready to ascribe it to intrinsic qualities of boys. Perhaps boys are neurologically a bit slower in developing or perhaps they are naughtier and so learn less. There may be something in this. Boys, for instance, have worse fine motor skills than girls and it is possible to see how a negative feedback loop might develop: Boys are able to write less in the same amount of time, their writing is messier, they compare this to others and get negative feedback and so they think they are therefore bad at writing.

But if you think the gap is due to the innate qualities of boys and that they are simply naturally worse at literacy then you won’t feel the need to do anything about it. And that’s a problem.

Curiously, I cannot imagine many educators suggesting that a lack of female participation in STEM subjects might be caused by the intrinsic qualities of girls. It’s not actually a helpful attitude for teachers to have. Accurately making predictions about any individual’s academic trajectory is close to impossible and so the best option is to maintain high expectations for all. And personally, I just don’t buy the idea that boys and girls are so different.


When I studied for my postgraduate certificate in education, I completed a literature review task on the fact that boys’ tended to underachieve in the exams that 16-year-olds take in England. This was 1997 and far from being a quirky topic to pick, it was part of the zeitgeist at the time. A lot of people were researching it and discussing it.

I remember writing that one possible strategy to motivate boys about academic work was to connect it to positive traits that are associated with masculinity and becoming a man. For instance, personal autonomy is something that young men were thought to aspire towards as a manly trait and so educators could emphasise the fact that academic achievement gives boys more choices and more freedom to act.

This argument was based on what I had read in my review. It was not my personal view and I am not making this case. I can already hear people noting that women are quite capable of being autonomous – which they obviously are – and I am not sure that there are any positive traits that we associate with masculinity these days and that would resonate with boys. Maybe this is a good thing because, by focusing on motivation, I suspect we are looking at this problem the wrong way around.

Feedback loops

Oakley is correct, in my view, to focus on feedback loops and deliberate practice. Simply trying to motivate boys about literacy will not work just as it does not work as a strategy to get girls into STEM.

There is nothing natural about any academic subject. These subjects are far too young to have been acted on by evolution and so learning them is effortful and slow. We therefore need to use some coercion to get students to engage in them. This can be positive and take the form of encouragement, or maybe turning aspects of practice into a game, but we can never remove the element of hard work.

Sometimes, we try and pull the wool over children’s eyes. We think we can motivate them by a fun demonstration or by giving them choices. But the long term effect of this works against our aim. If a child chooses to read wrestling magazines then that may be initially motivating. However, he will develop less vocabulary than the child who reads Tolkien and the gap between these two children will grow. Eventually, the magazine reader will work out that he is not as developed as the Tolkien reader, decide he is no good at reading and focus on other things that he thinks that he is good at.

When we teach in this way, schools operate as a talent selecting system. Eric Kalenze has a great analogy for this: The education system is a funnel. Children are meant to pass through this funnel to a destiny as a well-educated adult who is able to fully participate economically and democratically in society. Unfortunately, the funnel is upside down. Instead of reducing the achievement gaps between people in core skills, it exacerbates them. A proportion of the students who were already on the right course pass through the funnel. Many others simply bounce off the sides.

If we want children to develop strength in literacy then we have to make them. This does not need to be unpleasant but we do need to insist upon it. We need to help children learn to read and ensure that they read appropriately challenging texts. We need to make them practise their writing. For many, as they see themselves improve, they will gain intrinsic motivation and this will then feed into their future achievement. “I’m getting good at this,” they will think. There is no avoiding the hard work. As Oakley comments:

“All American students could benefit from more drilling: In the international PISA test, the United States ranks near the bottom among the 35 industrialized nations in math. But girls especially could benefit from some extra required practice, which would not only break the cycle of dislike-avoidance-further dislike, but build confidence and that sense of, “Yes, I can do this!” Practice with math can help close the gap between girls’ reading and math skills, making math seem like an equally good long-term study option.”

I agree with everything except the ‘especially’. This is exactly what we need to do to help boys with their literacy. What about them?


2 thoughts on “What about the boys?

  1. David F says:

    Hi Greg—this might be interesting to you: https://www.brookings.edu/research/girls-boys-and-reading/

    I teach history at an all boys secondary school–for me, the issue is that most of our students are not interested in reading on their when compared to the many other ways they can spend their free time (usually on devices, but also sports and activities). Given the movement to put devices into the students’ hands for educational purposes and then assuming they’ll spend their time wisely at home working on their homework/assigned reading and not misuse the device is another problem. Further, many of my students have self-reported that they multitask with multiple devices when doing school work, thus adding to their extrinsic load. The end result is that reading for pleasure gets squeezed out for many.

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