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Teacher Diaries

Boy Trouble?

We're cheating all students. Girls may just put up with it better.

Nick Smith 27 Feb

Nick Smith, an English teacher, now works in alternative education on the Sunshine Coast after teaching for 13 years in Vancouver. You can view his webpage here which is the culmination of his Master's of Educational Technology at UBC.

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[Editor's note: This is the first of The Teacher Diaries, a new occasional series in The Tyee. B.C. teachers will share what it's like to do their jobs, what they consider the most pressing issues facing their students, and where they see solutions.]

Boys and school don't mix right now, it seems. While girls fill school honour rolls, boys earn the majority of failing grades. While girls take the lion's share of scholarships and post-secondary seats, guys, meanwhile, account for most drop-outs.

This crisis has plagued the education system for at least a decade now. But while opinions abound, the solution is still far from clear. So clutching a copy of Barry MacDonald's Boy Smarts in one hand and the handle of my laptop bag in the other, I take a seat at the front of the auditorium at Enver Creek Secondary in Surrey to hear how he proposes to solve this problem.

MacDonald's solutions to the mismatch of boys and schooling ring true for me as a teacher and parent. When he tells the crowd that we have to let boys move around, take stuff apart and figure things out themselves, I think of my boys, who enjoy playing at the beach near our home where they pick up shells, examine flotsam and throw rocks at floating debris. Neither prefers to spend time at a desk with pen and paper. MacDonald suggests that to meet boys' needs, we should keep verbal instructions to a minimum, engage in dialogue instead of lecturing and keep lessons based in the real world. Don't tell boys answers, he implores, but give them problems to figure out instead. Get to know them. Make them laugh.

Girls are quiet?

After the talk, teachers banter energetically around me, as we head out into the cold, clear afternoon. Resolving to do better for the boys I teach seems like the right thing to do. None of the solutions to this supposed crisis are actually gender specific, however, and this bugs me enough to keep me from buying in. I can't see why we would want to deny girls their opportunity to grapple with scenarios, build stuff, get out of their desks and have a bit of a laugh now and again. I begin to wonder if the crisis and its solutions are a red herring distracting us from the real issue: education has become institutionalized and politicized to the point where we are cheating all students. The girls are just better at putting up with it.

When Anne Moir and David Jessel published Brain Sex in 1992, they brought the differences between male and female brain design into public consciousness with the thesis of their book stating, "Men and women are different because their brains are different." The late 1990s saw a plethora of titles such as Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, and The Good Son by Michael Gurian, which advised parents and educators on how to deal with "a nation of boys who are hurting -- sad, afraid, angry and silent" (from the jacket of Raising Cain).

By 2000, the British Government had launched the "Raising Boys' Achievement" project, which aimed to "identify the strategies schools have employed to raise educational standards for boys (and girls)." In the last couple of years, the issue has hit the mainstream. In 2006, Newsweek splashed "The Trouble with Boys" across its cover, claiming that "Boys across the nation, and in every demographic, are falling behind." Around the same time, the Vancouver Sun ran a front-page story entitled, "Boys don't learn the same way girls do," featuring none other than Barry MacDonald.

Complex problems, simple solutions?

Even MacDonald has some reservations with his topic, distancing himself from U.S. researchers, such as those who back The Boys' Project formed in January 2006, which asks, amongst other questions, "Are single-sex schools the answer?" MacDonald rightly points out that this is a narrow right-wing debate with an agenda that has little to do with recent brain research findings.

Yet, after much thought and dialogue, I realize that it is not the gender-segregation extremists who have me concerned, but mainstream presenters like MacDonald, who just want boys to do better in school. It brings to mind the parable of the man looking for his keys under the streetlamp where there is light, rather than in the dark where he lost them. These experts have framed the problem in simplistic terms, giving people what can be easily understood, rather than telling them that our present public school system, which has changed little in the last century, isn't communicating very well with the YouTube generation and is doing little to prepare them for the 21st century.

In response to the current problems in education, experts "create a problem first, then create a solution, which comes down to a simple list, like '10 top things schools can do to help boys,'" says Dr. Susan Gerofsky, a professor of math education at UBC. Gerofsky says the real issues are increasing class size and the use of American-style, wide-scale testing as the only way to measure success. "This rewards kids who are willing to memorize facts and algorithms." She says we need a new model of assessment that rewards valuable learning that can't be easily quantified -- things like degree of engagement, critical thinking, attitude, creativity and insight, which matter much more than following instructions and recalling facts. There are ways to do this, but they all take time and do not easily fit onto a spreadsheet. "We need to get out of this industrial model. We need them [students] to become makers of things, not just consumers and memorizers."

Gerofsky balks at the framing of the current crisis. "The curriculum has traditionally been boy-friendly," she says. "I don't see what is so good for girls in this curriculum."

'Boys are not defective'

Girls who tidily fill in their worksheets or complete the questions at the chapter's end, both common classroom activities, are not getting the best education has to offer, she says. I point out that the methods now being touted for benefiting boys, such as keeping lessons active and visual and involving the students in constructing knowledge rather then just telling them answers, were once just considered good education, and she chuckles. Then, she says, her tone becoming serious, "We are ignoring what we know about quality education." Clearly, it is not just the boys who are being short-changed.

"Boys are not defective. They do not need to be fixed," says Michael Maser, who agrees that it's the assessment-based system itself that needs a closer look. Maser, a recent recipient of a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence for his work with Self-Design, an online independent school serving 450 students throughout B.C., says the problems begin with the ideology that underpins our current school system. "Schooling remains at odds with the sensibilities of young people," he tells me. "Ask a kid what he wants to learn and he will come up with an answer."

Maser is outraged with the idea that this debate about effective learning for each gender is presented as science-based. "It is paternalistic to say that this is a neurology-based problem," he says. While admitting that there may be differences between male and female brains, he says that, for educational purposes, the differences "have not shown up as that profound."

Shame and Abel

But David Hatfield could not disagree more. When I suggest to this independent educator who works with boys, that a focus on boys' performance in school might be a red herring, his response is clear. "Suicide is the leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-old males...Try to tell me there is nothing wrong."

Hatfield says that while gender has always been a hot topic in education, boys are presently in a very difficult position at school because "boys have internalized a shame about being male." The causes? "We are linking boys with bullying, with violence," for example.

He admits that it is not about teachers or education per se, "but the school system." As much as he would like us to get to the point where we can look at improving the chances for success for both genders equally, first we must address the fact that, "there have been 40 years of valuing the rights of females, with a lack of parallel exploration...regarding males and masculinity."

True testing

After all of this talk, what is staring me down is the huge disparity between what we know and what we do. When I studied education before becoming a teacher in the early 90s, my professors were dead set against lecturing, worksheets and memorizing facts for the test, but those were still the methods they employed, and the ones I saw in use during my practicum. We as teachers know that education must be engaging and relevant to be effective, and that the learner must be actively involved in the construction of knowledge for anything to stick. I know of no study that shows standardized testing to increase student learning. What I know is that there is no multiple-choice question that can measure the kind of learning that really changes people.

Let me give you an example. My students choose scenes to play from Macbeth as we wrap up our study of Shakespeare's play. An El Salvadoran boy, who still struggles with English, selects a role with few words. After a few periods of rehearsal, he faces down Macbeth with a metre stick in front of the class, spitting "My voice is in my sword" with intense passion. He clearly understands the play and the character. His classmates burst into applause. This same student, however, when writing the test on Macbeth, draws a blank when asked to remember the norms of Elizabethan drama. Statistically, the girls in his class might ace the test that he bombs, but it does not follow that tests are good for girls. And it does not follow that he understands little about the play.

When Hatfield demands of me, "Let's ask questions," I agree with him. As a teacher, it is my duty to make sure we ask some tough questions, and not just the ones for which we know the answers. As Carol Gilligan says in the Newsweek story, "We all stand to benefit from changes that would encourage boys and girls to explore the full range of human development and prepare them to participate as citizens in a truly democratic society." Let us not get sidetracked.

Are you a teacher? Send us an e-mail if you're interested in contributing to this series.

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