Boys’ Engagement in the Classroom

I’ve been an English teacher for nine years and Head of English for four of those years.  Having taught at an inner-city comp for boys who were largely from very disadvantaged backgrounds, I’ve encountered my fair share of insecurity, apathy and testosterone. Despite this I’ve managed to build a rapport with most boys and have helped countless pupils seemingly overachieve along the way.

Certain sections of the media, fuelled by grim statistics and behaviour horror stories, tell us that boys are doomed to lag behind, cause havoc in the classroom and excel only at subjects involving a calculator, corner flag or chisel.  As someone who was a boy, went to school (occasionally) and was thoroughly disengaged, I think I understand this much-maligned 50% of the teenage population quite well.  Poacher turned gamekeeper, is the phrase that most amuses my mother, who is delighted by the prospect of me now standing at the front of the class as an apparent bona fide male role model.

I jest, but this stuff matters a lot. Suicide rates among young males have risen frighteningly.  Apathy, alienation and low aspiration surrounds us.  It isn’t going to be easy, but I know from personal experience – and believe me I am still learning from my own chunky share of mistakes – that boys can and must achieve more at GCSE (or whatever instrument of norm-referenced, standardised testing torture is next designed for 16-year-olds).

So here’s a sneak preview of a part of the CPD session I’ll be delivering to my teaching colleagues on the first day back.  As you can see from my embryonic site, I’m more au fait with the printed page than the techy side of stuff, but I promise to pretty things up in due course.

My 29 point guide (the odd number will soon become apparent) offers some strategies that you may or may not currently use in your teaching and might want to consider:

Mark Roberts – Engaging boys in the classroom

(Anecdotal and research-based)

  1. Wherever possible, chunk tasks and information – trick them into doing the same amount of work without realising
  2. Boys like odd numbers (3/5/7 minute tasks work especially well)
  3. Boys usually don’t hold grudges – make sure you don’t either
  4. Boys like repetitive catchphrases
  5. They also love competition (group vs group, homework league tables etc.)
  6. Write in carefully selected pairs/teams to build up confidence
  7. Boys usually prefer visual stimuli but beware not to overdo the Powerpoints/video clips. They often need to learn listening skills and this takes time and practice.
  8. Boys produce more adrenaline: they tend to feel vulnerable after completing lengthy tasks. Ensure you offer praise at this stage.
  9. 70% of boys learn better by doing things. This can be seen as a process of trial and error and other strategies that involve speculation and reflection.
  10. Avoid confrontation (be aware of your body language), especially if you are male.  They are impressed if you can keep your cool. This doesn’t mean you ignore challenging behaviour.  But give thinking time/cooling off time/the chance for them to back down without losing too much face.
  11. Regular shouting simply doesn’t work. You can hold the moral high ground when they shout.  Also it means when you do have a blast they are genuinely shocked.
  12. With difficult boys (usually low self-esteem) it is vital to find an early opportunity to give praise and to phone home with positive feedback.  However, over time be careful not to overdo the praise – they can tell when you are being insincere.
  13. Praise effort not intelligence.
  14. Does it matter if they don’t have a pen? What’s more important, getting them to work or proving a point about how disorganised they are? If you want to prove a point make them use a pencil. Are you being a stickler just for the sake of it?
  15. Sometimes the timetable is against you.  Try negotiating rewards for hard work e.g. P5 Friday 45 mins of solid focus = 15 mins of more relaxed learning.
  16. Well-chosen humour/self-deprecation can really get them on side.  Avoid sarcasm unless you know group really well.  They also like analogies/examples/anecdotes about food and sport.
  17. Occasionally you have to show off your expertise to gain respect.  Telling them you are an expert isn’t enough in itself – wow them with your knowledge/skills. When combined with self-deprecation this is a potent combination.
  18. Is there an alpha male in the group?  Win them over and the others will probably follow.
  19. Be flexible – if there’s just been a big incident at break time you may well have to postpone the tricky concept at the start of your lesson for 5 minutes, in favour of something easy, while you get the key pupils calmed down.
  20. Be prepared to take risks. Pretend to be an extrovert. Read aloud with gusto.  Show your passion for the subject.
  21. Make deliberate mistakes and get them to pick them apart.
  22. Use hands-on props to boost creativity.
  23. You need to teach revision/planning/reading/classroom skills.  Don’t take these for granted.
  24. Move around as you teach.  Boys are stimulated by movement and activity.
  25. Get them to do the same (within certain parameters).  Can one of them write on the board instead of you?
  26.  Boys have been found to use 35% more language skills in mixed gender pairings. Think carefully about your groupings.
  27. Take away one worksheet per pair.  The pupils will share a piece of work and then must share their verbal ideas.
  28. Provide lots of examples of what good work, particularly writing looks like.
  29. Make sure you model the full writing process – from thinking, to planning, to writing, to editing – with pupils.

And one biggie, for all teachers – but especially SLT and HOFs – to consider:

  • Research indicates that only the most able benefit from setting. Boys are generally struggling and are therefore placed in the middle and lower sets. Look at the gender splits in your groups: are you disadvantaging boys before the year has even started?

I’d welcome your thoughts and feedback…


7 thoughts on “Boys’ Engagement in the Classroom

  1. Mark, this is a thoughtful and incisive piece informed by experience and research. The subject of engaging boys in the classroom is certainly one that merits attention for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. As a seasoned teacher I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments expressed. ‘Catch them being good’ comes to mind for point 12. I learned something new in point 26 regarding the benefit of mixed gender pairings from a language skills perspective, very interesting.

    Thank you for sharing this resource.


  2. Thanks – really useful in light of the news that thousands more girls are going to university this year than last. I will be sharing this at my school!


  3. This is a really useful and practical list, and all the more so as many teachers and academics don’t want to acknowledge the reality of social and cultural differences that affect, or are influenced by the expression of gender.
    Obviously, not all boys are the same. Boys who are sensitive and emotionally intelligent can be silenced by the behavioural codes of other young men who are reluctant to shown any sign of vulnerability. Also, developmental changes can be quite swift, or frustrartingly slow.
    In my view, many of the points mentioned equally apply to some or to many girls.
    As you note, performance skills and humour are key: if you are not enjoying yourself as a teacher why should the young ones?!
    I strongly support the use of short tasks, creative objects, tricks and tools. This strategy build staged progression and rewards effort in a highly motivating way.
    In my experience, the alpha male thing is often just a performance, and girls are often in dominant or leadership roles as well.
    How significant is the difference between single sex and co-ed schools?
    Once again, thanks for sharing your valued experience, Mark.


  4. No matter where we teach or train there is that commonality with boys that we have to create a hook and make those connections while they’re learning to build trust and confidence in you. Mark, you have presented some great hooks here for us educationalists to read, learn from and share, the latter being the core component with all our colleagues who should not be precious about resources they create. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Thanks Mark, just picked this up. I’m 3rd year into English teaching and in Boys only comp and this blog will really be great to share with my colleagues much of what you write about I can see the beginnings of I’m my own practice. least I know I’m going on the right direction! My feelings on ‘setting’ are similar to yours but only based on minimal teaching experience. I have a class of yr 10 boys who already know they’re at the bottom of the pile and react accordingly and it would be good to get some ideas to engage more with them rather than feeling every lesson is 20m work and 40m behaviour management! Thank you for sharing…Chappers44.


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