teenage boy

Boys and Education

Reading Time: 4 minutes

teenage boyRecently I attended a professional development session for teachers billed as improving schooling for boys presented by a well known author, public speaker and psychologist.

Boys are lost, the speaker said, not only in the education system but for most of their teenage and adult lives too. He believed the problem started when we changed from a predominately hunter/gatherer existence to an industrialized and highly urbanized one. In pre-industrial societies boys were surrounded by male family members, relatives and friends. Men were responsible for teaching boys skills and imparted lifelong lessons to successfully reproduce, raise more boys and live a happy and fulfilled life.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the industrial revolution all the males went to work in factories and were no longer available to induct boys into manhood. Fathers we are informed, spend on average eight minutes a day with their sons, an improvement however, from the two minutes a day a generation ago. This means that boys are no longer surrounded by fathers, role models or other men as they had been during the hunter/gatherer era.

Left to their own devices these boys undertake a solitary journey through adolescence, moping about the house and going to school where they often end up disrupting classrooms. The presenter concluded that the lack of males at home explains why high schools are awash with bored, aggressive, testosterone filled boys with nowhere to go. The answer it appears is to bring back the lost men so that a generation of boys can be found.

As a mother and as a professional teacher two things occurred to me during this talk. We can only speculate about the relationships between men and boys in pre-industrial societies and romanticize the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  Secondly, are boys really suffering at school because they lack good men or is the answer obvious but less palatable than people want to admit.

If we assume men were around their sons more often in a pre-industrialised society then who was off fighting the wars, tending the fields, teaching religion and undertaking trades? Men have always been absent from the home. Did the Viking  male sit around wanting to be a role model for his son? I don’t think so, not when the long boats and his mates were waiting to plunder the rest of Europe. Or what about the English peasant, between bouts of plowing the field and tending to livestock he was too tired to spend much quality time with his offspring. Even if he wasn’t tired he was obligated to fight for King and country and wouldn’t have been around to chew the fat with his brood. Or maybe, which is more likely, his son was beside him as they charged full pelt into the invading hordes of foreign fathers and sons before dying in a boggy ditch somewhere near Hastings.

In fact, the past 50 years has been relatively peaceful for men and if anything they have been around their families more rather than less. So why are schools full of restless boys? I believe there is another explanation as to why boys are lost. Boys are the canaries in the coal mine trying to alert us to disaster before it is too late. School is boring but no-one wants to listen.

Instead of letting them go when the testosterone starts to skyrocket we keep them sitting in their seats reading Shakespeare and poetry. Rather than give them time to run around and explore we sit them down to regurgitate rainfall statistics in Peru. Instead of pursuing outdoor activities we push OH&S legislation theory at them. Rather than guide them constructively into employment we keep them at school, give them detention and threaten them with failure.

I see boys day after day constricted by a curriculum that has no worth to them, constant essay writing, criteria based assessment and teachers that are burnt out from having to discipline them. No wonder boys are lost – they need freedom, a release from the testosterone that is making them jump inside. They are cooped up on sunny days, restless and itching to thump or poke the boy beside them.  They want to talk or tease the girls, they want to run around and kick a football, they want to play Xbox and games on their phones, listen to Ipods, text their friends and do anything else but sit all day at school. Girls are frequently bored too, they just aren’t as physical as the boys about it. Sure, there are always exceptions, some boys are happy and do well academically but for many, particularly in years 8 to 10 they are frustrated and bored.

Schooling is now or soon will be compulsory for 12 years. One day is a long time for a boy to sit still yet they are expected to sit still for thousands of days. Whilst I am committed to lifelong learning I am also convinced that learning is an ongoing, spontaneous process. Learning does not occur in rigidly structured timetable blocks, in soulless institutions where children are taught on mass. We have progressed to a technological age where gadgets can do a lot of the routine schooling for us. However, we still expect students to learn in the same way as in the past despite the technology that surrounds us and the distraction that it causes.

I believe schools are outdated and we need a new model for the 21st century. I agree that boys need men around to support and encourage them but no amount of male teachers can help if schools resist change. By offering a more flexible curriculum and acknowledging that we can’t teach students in the same model as previous generations, our lost boys may become the men we want and need in an uncertain future.  If anyone can convince school administrators on the need for change then that would be a worthwhile professional development session.

Author: Sue Bell
Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.

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