The problem with boys

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Falsifiability is a key aspect of any scientific theory. If you are going to put forward a testable proposition then you have to be able to answer the question: What evidence would prove this proposition wrong? If you cannot think of anything, then you have a problem.

Sociological theories are often unfalsifiable, particularly when interpreted by amateur sociologists drawing on these theories in the pursuit of other goals. For instance, the concept of ‘patriarchy’ can be used to explain any and all evidence about gender disparities. When women are disadvantaged then this can be explained by the patriarchy working to oppress women, but when men are disadvantaged, this can also be explained by the patriarchy and, specifically, the role of toxic masculinity and its deleterious effect on men.

I was struck by this when listening to a podcast from the BBC about the enduring problem of boys’ educational underachievement.

I have been interested in this issue for my whole career. As a trainee teacher, I was asked to write a couple of extended literature reviews. One was to be specific to the subject I taught and the other was to be more general. So I wrote about girls’ under-representation in the sciences, particular physical sciences and maths, as well as boys’ underachievement across the board. Writing about both topics enabled me to draw an interesting contrast. Many were quick to blame societal factors and discrimination for girls’ under-representation in science, even though a closer reading suggested it was more complex, and yet they did not do this when considering boys’ achievement.

The BBC podcast is interesting because David Grossman, the journalist, takes a refreshingly naive and open approach to the issues. His stance is that he is a father of boys and he just wants to figure out what is going on. He quickly determines that key differences between boys and girls emerge early, prior to school, and so schools are unlikely to cause these differences.

However, after exploring arguments about the relative roles that biology and the environment play in early boy/girl differences – for instance, does testosterone in the womb have an effect on boys? – he expresses surprise that so many of the academics he contacted for the programme did not want to discuss this aspect.

This is not surprising to those who are more accustomed to this debate. The average achievement of boys compared to girls is likely to be related to a complex mix of biological and environmental factors which, as Grossman eventually establishes, is ultimately irrelevant to the question of what works best to address this difference. However, anyone with an understanding of the academy in 2019 will be aware of the consensus that gendered behaviour is entirely socially constructed as a response to the environment (e.g. the patriarchy causes toxic masculinity). One academic that Grossman interviews suggests this may be an overcorrection of past errors made by ‘biological determinists’ who sought to simplistically attribute behavioural traits to biological differences in a manner that reinforced negative stereotypes and prejudices. This is plausible.

I still think these are interesting issues. However, I have noticed through the course of my career that the conversation around boys’ underachievement has become more muted. Even if it can be explained by toxic masculinity and therefore does not threaten sociological theories, it perhaps focuses on the wrong subjects. Maybe boys are not a fashionable group to be concerned about. If I am right, this represents a major problem, because boys’ underachievement is not going away and its consequences for all members of society are potentially dire.

13 thoughts on “The problem with boys

  1. When I first started teaching in the mid 90s there was a distinctive backlash to the era I had grown up in at high school. The 80s secondary school system was, in itself, a reaction to the previous era (the 60s and 70s, where girls and education were a dichotomy). The 80s were all about girls excelling in education. Suddenly, in the early 90s, girls were outnumbering boys in every faculty at university apart from engineering and maths. Questions were being asked then about education not celebrating boys for who they were. Boys were messy writers, didn’t sit still, had more behavioural problems, (more diagnosed with ADHD –
    big in the 90s) and didnt quite fit the box. This was noted by many but has never really been rectified. That is, with the exception of schools that get boys. Evidenced based practice on boys education does exist. We just have to embrace it.

  2. While I was studying for the mandatory master’s degree in secondary education required to be a teacher in my country I came across two sociological theories that could offer some explanation about why girls excel and boys fail in general. I studied them two years ago, so I can’t remenber the details to each of them, sorry about any inaccuracy. Acording to the first one, by sociologist Pierre Bordieu, girls excel because they are socialized in a way that agrees with the school’s expectations (follow orders, stay calm, be submisive, etc.), which isn’t the case for boys. The second explanation is offered by the rational choice theory, and states that since women tend to be more discriminated n the job market, girls compensate by pursuing their education further than boys.

    Another idea I had heard mentioned before is lack of representation. Since teachers are mostly women, many boys would lack a figure they can identify with, and it can be a factor according to some experts. I have heard the same reasoning made towards underachievement of black students under white teachers, so I guess there could be a grain of truth in it.

    I think this matter is worth studying, since it affects a significant portion of the population (boys are important too) and could lead us to new insights about our society.

  3. Hi Greg, I teach at an all-boys secondary school and have to say that my students run the gamut of the stereotypical underachiever to very motivated high achievers. One of the big issues I’ve noted is in line with Dan Willingham’s book on reading–most boys, even the motivated ones, are not reading on their own. This leads to less content knowledge, lower vocabularies, more difficulty reading complex texts, and poor writing skills. All of that leads to demotivation.

    In asking my students what they spend their time on instead of reading, the universal answer is video games, social media, TV, and other electronic distractions–many of which are designed to appeal to stereotypical “boys’ interests”. When this gets combined with progressive ed pedagogies that deemphasize content knowledge (especially in social studies classes in the US), a witch’s brew of ignorance is created that is very difficult to overcome.

  4. I was lured in by the intro paragraph. I teach Theory of Knowledge, an IB course where the falsifiability concept resonates. I also teach Algebra, where I’m seeing a lot of the same problems you’re seeing (underperforming boys, girls about to leave an educational system with a false set of assumptions about how the working world rewards model behavior.)

    Working in the trenches, I doubt much if any “study” or set of research data would persuade me or could even answer the large questions the podcast is posing. Every kid coming through the door has a different story and it isn’t until you get rotated to the rear that you have the luxury to think about problems in the aggregate.

    As a lot of the other respondents—to this post and your Tweet— are saying, much this boils down to post-industrial civilization trying to find meaningful roles for individuals it once happily ignored (or chewed up and spat out).

    Anyway, I do agree with the overall tone: The way we approach or frame this problem has been subject to intellectual and political “fads.” Here in the U.S. the patriarchy is taking its lumps because, let’s be honest, the success stories we’re rewarding via our political process demand a thorough housecleaning. A hundred years ago we needed a World War (or two) to burn off all the outdated thinking. I’ll take the current approach, thank you.

    Thought-provoking read.

  5. Do boys perform worse in school across the board, or do they just have a longer tail? Because that makes an enormous difference.

    Lots of the boys I teach don’t have any interest in book learning, because they know they will get jobs that require little or no book learning. Meanwhile girls are much more interested in the sort of jobs that require some ability with words or figures, even the ones who don’t like school very much.

    i did some research on this when I was at teacher’s college, because it was a big issue back then. Despite boys “falling behind”, men and women in NZ earn almost exactly the same up to about 28 (when women start falling as they leave work or go to reduce hours to have children in much larger proportions than men do). That strongly suggests that the lack of education isn’t hurting the boys a great deal.

    I got a B. I suspect it wasn’t the “right” answer, despite the large amount of data I assembled for it.

    But if the problem is that the bottom half of boys correctly work out that formal education isn’t improving their employability, then useful solutions are unlikely to arise. Because, to the people concerned, there isn’t a problem.

    1. This is the instrumental view that education is all about preparation for employment. I do not agree that it is. There are many other implications of an education gap between boys and girls, some of which are explored in the podcast.

      1. I’m not suggesting that education should be about preparation for employment. But later employability is a key reason for teenagers to care about their education — a person with good grades will get better jobs regardless of the relevance of the subject directly to their employment. If you ask a student why they should study at school, most of the answers for the ones who don’t like school will relate to employment. The clever ones might think otherwise, but then they aren’t where the problem resides.

        That there are lots of implications of the education gap isn’t in dispute. But to solve it we may have to persuade boys — and their parents — to take school more seriously. And how might you do that?

        Because all the fretting is worthless without a solution. And if there are close to no downstream effects for the people involved, a solution will be hard to implement.

        That society is affected is of pretty much zero concern to the boys involved.

  6. The funny thing about this is, in 30 years it will still be males inventing stuff and running the joint. Kinda of makes you wonder if school education (as distinct from tertiary education) is overrated. It’s not new. Girls have always done better earlier and males come up later, in their 20s.

    1. Very good point. Hate using personal experience as an example and I would be speculating, but in my family of 5 children (reasonable control for upbringing) 3 girls went straight from school to uni, 2 boys didnt start/finish engineering/comp science degrees until early 30s. Both brothers are earning more than all the girls.

  7. Yes, it’s a developmental issue. My own theory is that males construct schema differently to females and probably larger schema (sorry, and this is just a theory). This process takes longer and necessarily involves greater levels of initial confusion as they try and put the bits together but eventually results in more powerful schema.

  8. Going from PISA data from the last round, on average boys outperform girls in maths and science (small difference) and girls outperform boys in reading. So one can question whether boys are actually underachieving on a global scale. Country by country the stats are different and you would need to evaluate your own country’s data by subject to figure out whether there is an issue. On average no difference in female versus male IQ so we would expect educational outcomes to be broadly similar unless cultural and temperamental issues cause are causing differences. An argument I sometimes hear made is that implicit instruction approaches requiring more self control and self-direction favour females – I wonder if there are gender differences in the GCSE results at Michaela which favours direct instruction?

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