Teen boys and learning

Teenage boy looking confident at school

At a glance

  • Too much focus on internet games can be a distraction to teen boys' learning.
  • For many teen boys it's "not cool to be smart".
  • Goal-setting and getting boys organised are great ways to help them learn.
  • Motivating boys through ideas about their future helps them to see how learning is worthwhile.
  • It's good for a parent to get involved in the school's efforts to motivate their son's learning.

It's always been tough being a teenage boy but it's never been tougher than it is for the boys growing up in early part of the 21st century.

And as if learning how to shave and what to say to girls were not enough, for many young men succeeding at school is turning into one of the biggest challenges of all.

Why boys struggle in their learning

Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a decline in academic achievement among teenage boys. This has happened around the same time that the playing field has been levelled for girls, and is attracting the attention of many teachers and researchers.

One reason for this decline is the advent of digital technology, which has really captured boys' attention, says Dr Ian Lillico, author and expert on boys' education issues.

"Boys have really succumbed to the digital era," Ian says.

"There are now so many distractions like mobile phones and the internet, the Xbox and PlayStation and, of course, TV. And even though girls spend as much time on these devices, they tend to use them more as a tool where the boys use them much more as a toy." 

Don't assume that if they are in their bedroom for two hours doing homework that things will happen.Dr Ian Lillico Boys education expert

Boys have also struggled with a shift in emphasis in the curriculum, which has become much more literacy-based. In the past, a maths question may have been a straightforward challenge to solve an equation, now the student may be asked to read a paragraph of information before being able to determine what the equation is.

For some boys, it's also become "not cool to be smart", Ian says.

"When boys start to do well with homework and answering questions in class, there is a danger their peer group will think they are nerds and that they should be out playing sport instead," he says.

"Often boys don't want to pull themselves away from their peer group by doing well academically and risking being ostracised."

And on top of all these problems are the traditional testosterone-fuelled challenges of trying to grow from being a boy into a man.

However, there are plenty of things parents can do to help their teenage sons succeed at school. Prime among these is simply helping them to get organised.

Getting boys organised

Compared with girls, boys' ability to organise and plan their schoolwork is often poor, with homework and assignments frequently getting done only at the last minute or not at all.

"Don't assume that if they are in their bedroom for two hours doing homework that things will happen; they probably won't," says Ian.

"You have to muscle in a little bit and help them plan, maybe by writing things in a diary or using their mobile phone to store lists and reminders."

Motivating boys to learn

Motivation to learn is often another big hurdle for boys and it is here that having a concrete goal can be helpful.

"Parents need to really sit down and talk about the types of jobs and the types of careers that their sons want to do," says Ian.

"If the boy gets even a little bit excited about a job that they really want to do then sometimes the sacrifice they have to make becomes worthwhile to them."

Parents can also become involved in school activities aimed at expanding their sons' ideas about the roles and jobs they would like to do when they grow up.

The NSW Department of Education has developed an education strategy to help boys and girls do well at school, which is available in different languages.


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