Boys, too, can excel in school

It would probably come not as a surprise for many professors that, in this country, affirmative action in freshman admission has been practiced at quite a number of prominent universities. Mind you, this is done not only for the benefit of minority or disadvantaged groups but for male student applicants as well.

If you visit any co-ed elementary or high school in the country, you will find that the girls usually dominate the honor rolls. But drop by the disciplinary office and you will see boys being “detained.” Go to the records section and check the class grading sheets, you will find more red marks given to boys.


In one class, I asked my graduate students who were teachers, “If given a choice of teaching either only boys or only girls, which would you choose?” You guessed right! Almost all my students chose to teach girls.

What is happening here? Concerns about male underachievement and disciplinary problems are long-standing, yet little attention and useful help have been given.  The alibi that boys will be boys has not been convenient only in schools but also at home.


I’m frequently invited to speak at teacher development seminars. Most of the requested topics center on motivation, creativity, thinking, teaching methods, assessment, giftedness, learning disabilities, etc.

Last year a co-ed private school requested me to speak on quite a different topic: “How to teach boys.”  Why, I thought, this is a topic whose time has come!

Boys and girls

What explains gender differences? A group of theorists attributes the differences to biological factors such as brain structure, brain organization, hormones and genetics. For example, cognitive achievement may be influenced by fluctuations of testosterone or estrogen.

Another group of theorists believes that boys and girls enter schools with different sets of behaviors, attitudes and values. These are results of childhood socialization in line with cultural norms of masculinity and femininity. For example, boys are ridiculed for working hard in a “macho male” culture that tolerates male disruptive, antischool attitudes.

The third set of theories focuses on school factors. School learning and assessment procedures are better suited to females than males. Schools have become feminized and are not adequately addressing boys’ needs. For example, most schools lack male teachers to act as academic models.

Differences in reading


For over a hundred years now, researchers have expressed concern over a male deficit in reading achievement. While boys tend to perform better on tasks requiring simultaneous (visual) processing, they do worse on tasks involving sequential (auditory) processing.

Although both types of processing may affect reading skill development,  deficits in sequential processing may affect early literacy skill development by impairing students’ ability to learn and perform sequentially oriented word attack skills (e.g., phonetic decoding), which are critical to prereading skills.

Girls’ verbal superiority continues to increase through high school. From the socialization perspective, this superiority may also be attributed to the female’s stronger motivation to conform to social structures and norms through language. Girls are also more sensitive in their language use. Furthermore, there are gender differences in the attitudes toward reading. Girls, as a group, have more favorable attitudes than boys.

What boys are good at

For mathematics in general, there may not be much cognitive differences between the genders. But there is one relevant area that shows differences—spatial thinking, which is especially important in geometry and calculus, and for math application as computer imaging.

Boys’ brains have more cortical areas dedicated to spatial-mechanical functioning; they want to move objects through space—like balls, model airplanes, or even just arms and legs. Girls, who are superior in verbal abilities, tend to use verbal strategies even in spatial thinking. For most boys, verbal and spatial thinking are more distinct.

The average boys only use half the brain space that females use for verbal-emotive functioning. The more words a teacher uses, the more likely boys are to “zone out,” or go into rest state. The male brain is better suited for symbols, abstractions, diagrams, pictures and objects moving through space than for the monotony of words.

Boy-friendly schools

Many boys are in crisis in schools. To close the gap between boys and girls, schools can implement a few changes in instruction that are more boy-friendly.

Use more experiential and kinesthetic learning methods. Boys learn by doing. To address their lack of attention span, add movement. Provide frequent mini-breaks to simply get up and move, stretch, or jump in place.

Support literacy through spatial-visual representation, not only through words. For writing tasks, provide visual stimuli like comic strips or even allow boys to write composition with comic strips.

Allow for more boy interests and choices. Identify the student’s passion and integrate it into his learning. For example, use reading materials from sports magazines, technical magazines, biographies of sports heroes, computer whiz, etc.

Transform the culture to appreciate boys’ academic achievement. Raise their self-esteem by reminding them of their successes and giving them particular responsibilities that they will be good at.

Lastly, provide for male role models. Majority of the teaching staff is female, even in all-boys schools, resulting in the “feminization” of schools. Not trained in how boys and girls learn differently, female teachers have little empathy with boys’ boisterous energy.

Schools should be more than a place for reading and writing—which are not valued in the boys’ eyes. Turn this around, maximize the male advantage, expand learning activities and de-feminize the schools.

(Grace Shangkuan Koo, Ph.D., is associate professor of educational psychology at the University of the Philippines. E-mail her at [email protected])

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TAGS: boys, Education, freshman admission, Universities
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