In their efforts to tackle academic underachievement among boys, many schools are overlooking a key factor – young men’s reluctance to ask for support, says Mark Roberts, as he suggests ways in which teachers can encourage male pupils to reach out
A package arrives. It’s a new cupboard, ready to store a child’s toys. Except it isn’t ready. Packed flatter than a budget-hotel pillow, it requires assembly, and Dad is ready to tackle it.
Flinging aside the instructions, which insist on two people, he knocks up the outer shell in minutes. But as he nears completion, something’s not right: certain holes appear to have moved. The back has morphed into the front; one door won’t shut and the other protrudes like the cap of a belligerent teenager.
A scream of frustration brings his wife to the scene. The room is a littered with profanities and polystyrene debris. She approaches tentatively …
“Would you like some help?”
The answer, of course, is no. Several hours later, he emerges. It’s built. Just about. It’s a bodge, but it’ll have to do.
During remote learning, scenes like this were played out across the country. They didn’t involve stubborn dads and furniture and Allen keys (or, not all of them did). But they did involve lots of boys bodging academic work or giving up and chucking the metaphorical cupboard in the skip. They blamed the stupid instructions, rather than recognising that the problem was their reluctance to reach out for support.
Encouraging boys to seek teacher support
Most schools have action plans to try to address male academic underachievement. But what if they’re all missing something obvious? Increasingly, I’m convinced that there’s one overlooked area we need to focus on – both for when they’re learning at home and when they’re in the classroom: teaching boys how to ask for help.
In my experience, struggling girls are far more likely to reach out and ask for support, whereas boys tend to retreat into themselves. As a result, they are left floundering and embarrassed by their inability to do the work unaided.
The research backs this up. Studies have found that, in classroom situations, boys are less likely than girls to ask for help, even when they are completely stuck. Indeed, one study of primary school children found that when it came to maths, girls were three times more likely to ask for assistance.
So, why are many boys reluctant to seek help with academic work? What makes them self-handicap by staying quiet, even when expert support is repeatedly offered?
According to the academic Ruth Butler, from the school of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “pupils often avoid asking for needed help because help seeking can be interpreted as evidence of inadequate ability”. To put this colloquially, students don’t ask for help because it makes them feel stupid or they worry it will make them look stupid in front of their classmates.
Given that boys are generally more concerned about the effects of peer pressure, it’s unsurprising that they dislike advertising the fact that they are: a) finding the work difficult; and b) keen to receive help so they can complete the work.
Boys are also socialised to avoid talking about their feelings; they’re encouraged to “show resilience” and “man up”. Little wonder that so many are reluctant to show the vulnerability that is required in admitting that we need to rely on someone else.
Telling boys that you’re available – as good, approachable teachers have always done – isn’t enough. Instead, a more proactive approach is needed to help boys help themselves.
Take, for example, how you react when boys do ask for help. Consider the following scenario: a boy who hates asking for help approaches you on homework deadline day. “I don’t know why you’ve left it so late,” you tell him. “You should have seen me last week!”
You’re right, of course. But making him feel rubbish about doing the thing he detests doing will probably put him off seeking help in future. Strike the right tone and he’ll reach out more often. Get it wrong and he might not do your homework at all.
Another area to focus on is modelling self-regulation strategies. Imagine you’ve set a homework task. When setting the work you might ask the class to give themselves a confidence score to indicate how well they think they’ll cope with the activities. You circulate and seek out those who think they will struggle, explaining what to do if they get stuck. Normalising evaluation and help seeking is key to motivating stuck boys.
The research gives us other strategies. Butler’s studies found that “boys were … more oriented than girls to engage in social comparison”. A consequence of boys’ competitive attitudes is that they adopt self-defeating strategies such as refusing to ask for help when they realise they won’t win. Yet, in classrooms, where work is challenging but low-stakes, boys are more likely to seek assistance.
Another interesting study considered how students respond to difficult tasks depending on how the teacher introduced the activity. When tasks were introduced as a measure of relative ability (eg, a class test), few students sought help. But when the same task was presented as an opportunity to learn, students were more likely to request support. It’s essential, therefore, that we emphasise to boys that struggling is inevitable and that help seeking is a trait of successful learners.
Finally, there is a simple tweak that we can make to our pedagogy: stop asking, “Any questions?” This question is invariably futile. While many students will need help, boys in particular won’t admit their lack of understanding publicly. So you’ll need to prompt them to share what they don’t understand in more subtle ways.
One useful strategy is asking all students to stick a question on the board, on a Post-it note, about something they don’t get. The anonymity encourages boys to reveal their weaknesses. It also allows you to group questions into sub-topics, highlighting common misconceptions that need to be addressed.
Knowing that boys are generally unwilling to ask for help allows us to adapt our pedagogy and mindset. With careful changes, we can nudge boys into making themselves more vulnerable when stuck. So, over time, hopefully we can construct help-seeking attitudes that are more durable than a flat-pack cupboard.
Mark Roberts is director of research at a school in Northern Ireland
This article originally appeared in the 28 May 2021 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Getting boys to ask for help”