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Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools: Book review

‘What about the boys?’ is a common refrain in education circles when discussing academic achievement, particularly in English.

In the UK, as in other western countries, this problem is stark and has dire consequences. Boys are more likely to be expelled from school, less likely to go to university and not as likely as girls to find employment between the ages of 22 and 29. Most disturbingly, men are also three times more likely than women to commit suicide and comprise 96 per cent of the UK prison population.

It can be concluded, then, that boys’ underachievement at school, and the social, biological and cultural forces that give rise to it, form part of a worrying trajectory for boys as they mature and become men.

In their new book Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, English teachers Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts unpack a range of reasons why boys are struggling in school. They also debunk some common myths surrounding engagement and behaviour management and provide useful alternatives for the future. Most importantly, they contend that the “problem” with boys is deeply rooted in a toxic idea of masculinity.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book relates to engagement myths. Teachers commonly believe – with good reason, perhaps – that boys like lessons involving competition, physical activity and topics that are relevant to their own lives, among others.

Author Mark Roberts was one such teacher, but, as he explains through anecdote and research findings, a raft of unintended consequences stem from creating a hyper competitive environment for boys and endeavouring to make all learning “relevant” to their lives.

Research shows that boys are very competitive, care about the result of a competition more than girls, and they strive to be part of the “high ability” club. Roberts argues this hyper-competitive spirit breeds a self-destructive behaviour in boys that results in them “downing” the textbooks to protect their self-esteem: “If I haven’t tried, I haven’t really failed,” is the thinking behind this.

Similarly, the author makes a cogent argument for not making all boys’ learning “relevant”. First, he refers to cognitive social scientist Daniel T Willingham’s example of how content doesn’t always drive interest. For instance, we’ve all attended an event or lecture we thought would be boring but ended up being fascinating.

Secondly, Roberts invokes Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to argue that teaching boys content they find relevant does them a disservice by not giving them access to “certain knowledge, behaviours, and skills” that are “highly valued in society”. Teaching only highly relevant content also reinforces low expectations of what boys can and need to learn.

Boys Don’t Try is also devoted to improving boys’ social and emotional wellbeing, arguing that much low achievement in boys is rooted in social and cultural contexts.

Chapters on violence, sexism in schools, peer pressure and relationships offer evidence-based and practical information for schools wishing to lift the schooling outcomes and behaviours of boys. The topics are grounded in real-life scenarios, which also help to give the views credibility and a sense of familiarity for teachers.

Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools is available via https://www.routledge.com/9780815350255.

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