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Eight Effective Strategies for Teaching Boys About Gender-Part I: Beyond the Canary in the Coal Mine

Updated: Sep 14




Rockets, war reenactments, physical conflict, slingshots, catapults, stock market simulation games, competitions, business entrepreneurship, robotics and of course, reading Lord of the Flies.


Education texts on how to improve the experience for boys in schools tend to sound like this:

  1. We are failing our boys in school.

  2. We need to keep them engaged and interested in their education.

  3. BUT we will design strategies that purposefully navigate around a clear social contract.

  4. BY not challenging the basic tenets of patriarchal and masculine culture.

  5. AND most of these strategies we are recommending are just really strong educational practices for any child regardless of gender identification.

Many of these books are well meaning as they attempt to tackle an issue which we are increasingly struggling with in the United States: males are dropping out of or not completing almost every level of education in record numbers. This is not a new problem. With the ascendance of females in educational attainment, men are experiencing an opposite, descending trend. I have blogged previously about some of the causes of this phenomenon. A Working Definition for Schools Regarding Masculinit(ies). The solutions need to do better than our current thinking which walks on eggshells with boys regarding issues of gender.

With the ascendance of females in educational attainment, men are experiencing an opposite, descending trend.

The main thesis that these “how to…” educational texts take is an essentialist argument. Boys will be boys. Whether intending to or not, the framing and then the solutions are all contextualized and wrapped up in a biological argument. They look to mitigate and mediate around already existing and damaging constructions of masculinity which are partly fostered in school. So often, the strategies suggested are mostly contextualized inside of cliched arguments of who males are and what they need.

  • Boys are just more physical. They need to move more. Motor play!

  • They are more competitive. Games and competition need to be built into their programs.

  • Strong relationships with teachers support males.

  • Activities. Lots of Project Based Learning.

  • Performance based activities, particularly with an audience.

Here is where a very typical fallacy sets in which is not specific to the gender debate in education. There is a specific group of students in our schools and they need a particular type of program to support their learning. An example would be students with learning differences. Therefore, we think through excellent pedagogical approaches and skills that support these students. Then, we come to the realization that all of our students need these approaches and methodologies to be successful in school. The phenomenon is called the canary in the coal mine. Are the basic principles outlined in many of these books effective for engaging boys? Yes. But, guess what? They work great for female students as well and are needed for all our students on a regular basis.

Part of the reason why we think there is a gender divide in terms of needed approaches is because of our own biases regarding measuring engagement. Female students complain less, their experience is shaped by being rewarded for obedience and “going along with the program”. So, if our approaches are not really engaging or downright boring, we tend to hear it less from female students. They appear to be learning. Boys are taught to be more assertive. Through verbal cues, body language, downright rebellion, and poor behavior, they let us know exactly what works and what doesn’t. They are often screaming to learn and not to be passively taught, not to be bored to death.

Are the basic principles outlined in many of these books effective for engaging boys? Yes. But, guess what? They work great for female students as well and are needed for all our students on a regular basis.

My experiences with female students is that they love competition, they love getting up and moving around, they love having meaningful relationships with their teachers, they love performance. The strategies in many of these books designed to support and enhance the experiences of male learners really do the same for all learners.

The question for boys needs to be reframed: What is the problem we actually need to address with boys to both support them as learners and challenge the damaging assumptions of patriarchal constructs perpetuated in our schools?

In part II of this post, I will share a new way of focusing our lens on keeping males engaged in education and provide eight strategies on how to get this done. Stay tuned.



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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy