Male school students

Applying key learnings from the first in our ‘Being a Boy’ series in order to champion positive outcomes for boys in schools

  • 01 March 2022
  • 3 min read
We’ve now hosted the first in a series of ‘Being a Boy’ CPD sessions exploring the challenges faced by boys in relation to their educational attainment. Our community of practice has also started the journey to further understanding the educational experiences of boys in Portsmouth.

What have we heard so far, and where do we go from here? 

Many factors contribute to academic underachievement in boys. From peer-pressure to our own negative perceptions and expectations. Even some of the strategies deployed to tackle the problem can prove to be counterproductive or damaging.

Understanding boys’ motivation

In the first CPD session, teacher, researcher and author Mark Roberts examined research that shows boys are often motivated extrinsically by rewards or performance goals, rather than by the intrinsic feeling of mastering new knowledge. 

Research outcomes

Learnings show that extrinsic motivation results in poor self-efficacy among boys, and examples of this in the classroom include:

  • Overconfidence in their abilities but choosing easier tasks 
  • Avoiding challenging tasks or self-sabotage where they believe there is a high chance of failure
  • Lacking resilience when they do get things wrong
We also looked at some of the classroom strategies that teachers and schools use to motivate boys, and where these approaches can be improved upon. For example, a classic strategy to engage boys is to provide a ‘hook’ through sport, video games or practical learning. But if boys only remember the hook, they haven’t advanced academically or gained any appreciation for the subject content itself. Getting students to taste success is key to boosting their intrinsic motivation to engage.  In Mark’s book, ‘The Boy Question’ he provides some helpful pedagogical principles to ensure boys experience success in the classroom.

The impact of language and expectations

The question of aspirations was discussed among practitioners in our first Community of Practice. In particular, that ‘low aspirations’ is cited throughout education as a factor in low attainment. The concept of 'raising aspirations' is an outdated model that suggests the deficit is with the individual, rather than with the socio-economic structures within which they live. It is an example of just how impactful the language we use can be on student’s expectations of themselves. 

Another example is the use of praise. A key takeaway from the CPD session with Mark Roberts, was that by praising unengaged boys for easy tasks, we’re likely reinforcing to the student that we only have low expectations for their learning and have a low perception of their ability. In turn, they will continue to not fully engage. This is known as the Pygmalion effect - whereby students will rise to meet high expectations, but equally will sink to meet low expectations if they perceive that’s what the teacher believes about them.

Looking ahead

Other themes that have emerged from the conversations so far, include mental health, peer pressure and social constructs such as masculinity - and the coping strategies boys adopt to deal with these.

In particular, the culture of ‘laddishness’ and what it means to be a ‘Pompey lad’ are both areas that will be explored further. Firstly, through the next CPD session titled, ‘Reflect, Empower, Grow’ with a focus on boys’ mental health and the pressures they might feel to conform to a masculine stereotype. Then also through the next Community of Practice meeting where we’ll dig a bit deeper into how mental health and masculinity intersect with being a boy growing up in Portsmouth.