Turning around boy culture in the classroom

March 28, 2018 - 06:20

Dominant cultural norms result in boys doing worse than girls in school, according to new Swedish doctoral research. But it's possible to turn it around, says the researcher.

Boys’ academic performance is hindered by cultural norms, according to recent Swedish research. Professor of pedagogy Thomas Nordahl believes we need to take this seriously. (Photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix).

Girls generally outperform boys in school. Why is that? Have schools been “feminized” to the advantage of girls or do boys just need to sharpen up?

Of course, it’s not a matter of a simple yes or no answer to this question.

A Swedish researcher has investigated whether some of the cultural norms for boys make it difficult for them to show that they want to work at school.

Girls and boys internalize societal expectations from an early age, but teachers can take measures to change attitudes that can help boys to perform better, says Fredrik Zimmerman at the University of Gothenburg, who carried out the new research.

He has looked at the aspects of school culture that enable boys to work hard on their studies and those that prevent them from doing so.

"The results show that challenging an ‘anti-school culture’ or ‘effortless achievement culture’ in school is very important for both sexes," Zimmerman writes in a summary of his research.

Convinced this is important issue

This question also concerns Thomas Nordahl, professor of pedagogy at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences (INN University), where he heads the Centre for Studies of Educational Practice.

Nordahl is convinced that the “boy culture” and norms of masculinity play a role in working against academic achievement.

"When we look at how much boys lag behind in school and see that almost two out of three pupils going on to higher education are girls, then we have to take this seriously," he says.

Zimmerman interviewed ninth grade students and followed two ninth grade classes for three months to underpin his dissertation research. He says in a press release that boys regard being ambitious at school as feminine.

This is one characteristic of schools where the culture among boys toward working and exerting themselves is negative, according to the article.

There can be a social cost to being excited about learning and striving to do well, says the Swedish researcher. Thomas Nordahl is familiar with this scenario.

"The school environment has two elements, a social one and a learning one. When the social values align with the academic ones, learning usually goes quite well,” he says.

But sometimes the two expectations clash. In this case, it may not be socially acceptable to be academically ambitious – or more exactly, it may be fine to do well as long as you don’t have to work hard at it, says Nordahl.

“You could say that in some male settings it's okay to be smart and lazy. But that doesn’t work forever, and this is important for boys to learn,” he says.

Turning attitudes around

Instead of examining classes where the boys' learning environment was negative, Zimmerman followed two ninth grade classes where the situation was the opposite.

These classes fostered a learning culture that accepted boys taking schoolwork seriously and talking together about subject matter without losing social status or being ridiculed.

Zimmerman believes one approach in particular contributed to this positive study culture: The teachers constantly talked about study techniques as tools for learning. It meant that the boys saw being good at something as a result of working at it and not as a talent they either had or didn’t have. It was advantageous for them academically," said Zimmerman.

"Even the girls said that they feel better at school when the boys hold the view that you become – rather than already are or aren’t – good in a subject," Zimmerman said in the press release.

This attitude seemed to “give permission” to the boys to study seriously. When the majority of boys do this, the students don’t perceive challenging schoolwork as being feminine anymore, according to the Swedish researcher.

"This is an example of how changes in gender norms that benefit both sexes are possible," he says.

Getting dads to pitch school learning

Nordahl has also noticed that some students have the attitude that succeeding at school has to do with whether you’re smart or not.

"If we manage to turn it around so students see that success is about effort, then their views will turn around," says the professor.

But the expectations in many boys’ lives – and no doubt also in the lives of many girls – can pull them in different directions, including away from school. It may be that the adults around them don’t adequately stress the importance of school.

Nordahl believes that fathers especially should more actively help shift boys' attitudes towards schoolwork.

"It’s important to involve the dads, because they’re models for these boys. We found that mothers account for 75 per cent of the contact between home and school, and a majority of teachers are women. Masculine values can then easily take a back seat,” Nordahl says.

He thinks fathers should convey the importance of school. They tend to get more involved in after-school activities than in school, and boys pick up on these signals, he says.

Is laziness a misconception?

Nordahl stresses that it isn’t easy to choose to apply oneself at school if this goes against the socially acceptable norm. Some teachers may fail to see this and interpret a student’s lack of effort as not caring.

"I think too often when we see boys who don’t make an effort, we put this responsibility on the boys themselves. We adopt the attitude that if you don’t understand that you have to work, then you’ll fail,” he says.

"We'd do better to look at the behaviour in a social context and see that for many boys it's a difficult choice to make. Going against social expectations has a cost,” Nordahl adds.

Girls still managed better

Zimmerman’s doctoral dissertation reveals that boys still lag behind girls in their academic achievement, despite the fact that their learning environment supports them taking their school studies seriously. So why is that?

Zimmerman points out that girls learn to understand what the teacher is looking for. Adults also have a tendency to use a more complex language with girls – which can give them a leg up in language development and which in turn is important for school performance.

Nordahl thinks the most important thing is to promote a culture among boys where applying oneself and engaging in schoolwork is seen as something positive.

“Good pedagogy works well for both boys and girls, and that's what they need,” he says.

A 2011 report on schools that have fewer gender differences can offer some insights, says Nordahl.

"We see that those schools are investing heavily in reading and finding good reads that boys are interested in. They take the attitude that what boys read is less important than that they do read,” he says. The report also shows that students need good boundaries, clear adults and good teacher–student relationships.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no.

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