School marginalizes boys. (Let boys play video games.)

I am going to summarize the findings presented in an incredible TED talk by Ali Carr-Chellman professor of education at Penn State. Like much of the education research coming out today, her conclusion makes it completely clear that parents should homeschool boys. But that’s too controversial for her to say. So I’m saying it.

Here’s the research she presents:

Boys are failing in school.

  • Twice as many boys in slow reading class.
  • Twice as many boys than girls in special ed.
  • Twice as many boys than girls suspended.
  • Twice as many boys than girls expelled.
  • (Note: these statistics are more extreme in private schools.)

There is zero tolerance for boy behavior at school. 

  • Zero tolerance for rough-housing on the playground, but it’s what boys like to do for fun and social development.
  • Zero tolerance for writing about violence and video games. Instead boys are encouraged to write poems and stories about moments in their lives.

School looks like a place for girls.

Only 7% of elementary teachers are men. Which makes boys think this is not a place for boys. It’s a place for girls. Boys don’t belong here.

And they are right. Because a teacher’s salary depends on getting students through testing. And testing is getting harder because kindergarten goals are what 2nd grade used to be. So the teacher says to sit down, focus, be quiet, pay attention. What she says indirectly is “be a girl.”

Important note: This was a problem before boys started playing video games. Video games are a symptom of the problem that school is not appropriate for boys, it’s not the cause of the problem.

Solution to improve education for boys is to:

  1. Give them video games with a strong narrative to engage them.
  2. Expose them to more male role models during the day.
  3. Engage them on a one-on-one basis to find what games are right for their education.

Problem is that this is not scalable.

That’s how the TED talk ends. But here’s my addendum, which is this is why parents need to take boys out of school. It’s so clear in this talk. We know that school is not good for boys. We know the solution to the problem. And we know that schools cannot implement the solution.

Boys need to be home, playing video games or any activity really that engages them. They need to be outside of the school walls so they are not isolated from the adult male population. This is the research no one wants to read because it’s so hard to keep your sons in school when you read stuff like this. The only way to keep your son in school is to be able to say that he’s one of those rare boys who functions more like a girl than a boy. It’s a hard assumption to make with a very young boy. But that’s what you’re saying when you keep your son in school.

32 replies
  1. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I listened to this talk recently as well and loved it.

    My notes have some of the same points as yours, but one thing that stood out was the that so many of the educational games available for our kids are simply “glorified drill and practice without the depth and rich narrative” that Xbox & DSi games have.

    It’s the difference between learning multiplication facts with flash cards and/or learning them while on the trampoline trying to double-bounce a sibling. There’s simply no comparison.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Heather, I just realized that you’re the one who sent me this link. Thanks!

      Also, I remember that in your email you pointed out something really interesting – that 70% of students in colleges are going to be girls, and girls don’t want to go to college where there are no boys. That was another gem. Thanks for that, too. I’ve been thinking about it a lot – what that means for the future.


  2. Anna Louise
    Anna Louise says:

    The problem stated is spot on. However, as for the solution, project-based learning and outdoor studies/adventures seem far more productive, educational and developmentally appropriate.

    Boys are designed to be walking through forests and savannas with their fathers in search of food – not sitting at a desk with basic skills worksheets and also not sitting with controller in hand.

    So many computer games are mindless. There are some gems – most of them PC games from a decade ago, such as Age of Mythology.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, I think I focused too much on video games. But I just want to point out that boys who can choose any game don’t choose mindless games because they’re less engaging.

      But anyway, I like your savannah point. I think the key is the games part. The walking in the savannah looking for food is a game. It’s like a live-action violent video game. So one of my big takeaways from this research is that women are deciding what is good for boys to be doing, but women naturally don’t relate to what boys want to do – be violent with each other and with their games.


      • Anna Louise
        Anna Louise says:

        Yes true, hunting is an action packed violent game so it does help one to understand why video games are such a draw. But I want my boys playing games in real life primarily. Boys need exercise to function and a lot of it and yes they prefer competitive games. They ought to be active most of the day, not 15 minutes at recess and a half hour at a soccer game on weekends. It troubles me deeply that boys are so turned on to video games that it removes their desire to move. That is simply not normal and so contrary to their basic natures. That is why I’m trying to direct my sons towards outdoor activities via camps, park visits, science classes, yard projects, farm work, competitive sports. Yes they play video games too, in the evening.

        I let my boys be boys but true it’s not in fashion. If you want to see really cool programs, check out Trackers Earth out of Portland, Maybe there are similar programs elsewhere. Now THAT is my idea of a school for a boy!

      • Becca
        Becca says:

        Folks here may well have already read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. I highly recommend the books as resources for parents and teachers. (This comment is in response to the Savannah comment.) I think Penelope makes great points about the educational nature of how her boys use video games, and I also think that keeping in mind relationships with nature (for both boys and girls) is hugely important in giving children the best skills to succeed and thrive.

  3. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I have to disagree with one point here: “The only way to keep your son in school is to be able to say that he’s one of those rare boys who functions more like a girl than a boy. ”

    If you have one of those boys – say, a boy to whom any sort of physical violence is alien and incomprehensible, and who loves nothing more than a fine set of rules to follow – you should pull him out of school ASAP, or better, never send him to school at all.

    That boy will become target number one for all the frustrated violent boys. The violent boys may not _like_ school, but they _own_ school. They quickly figure out how to keep their violence under the radar. And nobody is better for bullying than a kid who will never hit back.

    School is bad enough for a typical boy. It’s hell on earth for a sensitive boy.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Commenter, I haven’t been in a school in a long time. From cultural stereotypes (tv, movies), I get the sense you are right. Do you work in schools or see this firsthand?

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        mh, as will be clear from other comments here, this observation is from personal experience.

        I don’t like to get too much into my biography online, but based on observations in my family, school will be terrible for many boys, but much more damaging to sensitive boys.

  4. Karen Loethen
    Karen Loethen says:

    I have often wondered how my son would so in school. He is a wonderful child, but he needs latitude in his activity during lessons. With his sensitivity, I would hate to see what he would have to go through!

  5. Richard Howes
    Richard Howes says:

    Wow! I have spent the last hour or more reading one article after another from your site. So much wisdom and honesty. I realise that sounds condescending and sappy, but hey…

    I have two kids in grades 2 and 3 – a girl and a boy. Over the last six months I have come to the conclusion that homeschooling is what I want for my children. Fortunately, my wife has come around in the last few weeks as well. Our eyes are opened to what school is, and we cannot become ignorant again (although sometimes I wish we could).

    The video was great. My son is a perfect example of the problem. He doesn’t fit into school for all the reasons listed.

    But, almost more importantly, my daughter fits in too well. She does great at school. She is the younger one and reads better than my son. She does what she is told, and does it well. The problem is that she does it for the ‘reward’ of praise and recognition. It doesn’t occur to her NOT to follow the rules. I would rather she rebelled than fall into line with the demands and expectations of the traditional schooling system.

    The countdown to homeschooling has begun! We are measuring in weeks now ;-)

    Thanks for a great blog!


    From Zululand, South Africa

  6. Jana @ 365 Hand Lettering Project
    Jana @ 365 Hand Lettering Project says:

    I work with 5th graders at a public school. I’ve been talking to the boys about blogging and how I make some money on one of my blogs. One kid went home that first day and started a blog.

    I’m working with some others on blogging during recess and lunch.

    I realize that I can’t change it for every kid but I can at least make it better for the kids (mostly boys) that need something different at school to look forward to than just getting good grades.

    Because many of them don’t get good grades.

    They live for any free time when they can play minecraft.

  7. lg
    lg says:

    Hi — I wholeheartedly agree modern school is not for boys.

    I really like how the Waldorf schools address this problem: at the age when most boys begin to get into violent video games (4th gradish) they introduce hero tales, etc. Ie. in the early years, Kindergarten they focus on simple nature stories, fairy tales in first grade (appropriate), fables and folk tales in 2nd grade, Old Testament stories and stories of saints (and martyrs) in 3rd grade, hero tales and greek mythology in 4th, etc.

    Also ‘dangerous’ but very physical hobbies such as blacksmithing, wood working, and glass blowing is good for boys at this age as it gives them purpose, accomplishment, with elements of danger. I like this concept for boys. They are engaged in real world and real work – just as your boys are on the farm… I would love to see more apprenticeship programs offered for boys in this country tracking at age 12, etc – shorter school days, etc.

    I saw a beautiful little boy around age 9 or so in library yesterday at 3:30 after being in school all day practicing reading with worksheets and a tutor and really really struggling. I wanted to scream at the tutor/mom to send him outside to play!!! In the woods so he can build a teepee or something!

  8. redrock
    redrock says:

    … and then you get to highschool and there are no role models for girls in math and sciences, or woodworking, or glasblowing. But wait, that is not a problem because girls are not interested in those subjects any way.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        sure, but the argument that girls should do more homemaker stuff at school comes up on a regular basis.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Don’t know where you are, but where I live the community art centers offer those type of courses, with men and women as instructors.

  9. Julie
    Julie says:

    School is bad for boys. School is bad for gifted children. School is bad for children with learning differences or disabilities. It seems school is good only for average or typical girls. I was an average girl myself and hated it and avoided going as much as possible, although I guess the typical girl is less likely to need to be medicated in order to succeed there. I think it is pretty safe to say that school isn’t really good for anyone, it is just more well tolerated by some than others.

    • mh
      mh says:

      I think you’ve got it right, Julie. School is tolerated by some kids… but good for almost nobody.

      Not even teachers have a lot of good things to say about how school operates for kids.

      The worst thing about school is this thing they do where all the children sit grouped at desks and learn as a “team”. Few opportunities for solitude or quiet. No thanks.

  10. Lizarino
    Lizarino says:

    1. Get rid of no child left behind.
    2. Get rid of homework and testing.
    3. End compulsory education.

    Let boys be boys and let girls be girls. The only way to let boys be boys is to homeschool. Good blog!

  11. mh
    mh says:

    I think the point is, boys need GAMES, not just video games.

    Kids just need to be outside exploring. I don’t know whether that is just boys, or especially boys, but school is the opposite of the “outside exploring” mentality. Kids need fresh air and no walls and time without grown-ups. After-school sports activities, where grown ups blow whistles and “coach” kids’ games, are NOT outside exploring.

    My kids make up games. Dumb things, like skipping stones and tossing stones and rolling nickles on the ground, or races and challenges, or whatever. And extremely complex things, making up their own little worlds and playing games there that go on and on, for days and weeks. That’s what the homeschool kids we know mostly do when they get together — make up games.

    We pack up scrabble and checkers and head over to a nursing home to play games with the older folks. My kids love to play games, and they get to listen to the stories these folks tell, too.

    Not just video games, GAMES.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I agree that it’s games – just games. But I think we should respect the games boys choose to play instead of telling them to play what we would choose.


  12. Bird
    Bird says:

    I homeschool.

    I just visited a public school for grades 3-5 that blew my socks off.

    The space was set up, furnished and used like co-working space. Tiny businesses were everywhere – computer training in a loft, a nail salon in a little bathroom, makers and sellers of games in some cubbies.

    I saw boys throwing balls across the main space and then another boy with a group of boys working on something on a couch said “Master.” The rest of the class said back “Yoda,” and paused. “It’s getting kinda loud in here,” said the boy. The other boys took their game outside.

    I saw boys walking down the hall with their arms around each other, boys planning something on a pallet platform in a corner, a boy reading a graphic novel on an exercise bike and another boy doing some math on a half-ball mini trampoline.

    I like new data that challenges my assumptions. This school did that. It was immediately clear that the kids I homeschool would love this school. More business partners to work with, for one thing.

    • Richard Howes
      Richard Howes says:

      Sounds amazing. What really frustrates the hell out of me is why everyone cannot see how broken the traditional school system is and that is needs radical change, and quickly.

      • Bird
        Bird says:

        Agreed. But lovely to find this school out there. One of the things that really got me was how the students viewed it as part of their work to teach the many many adults coming through to see and learn. They know that what is happening there is awesome and they are excited to help spread it.

    • mh
      mh says:

      That sounds like a great school. Was it ONE classroom/grade, or was it across grade levels? I have so many questions…

    • Anna Louise
      Anna Louise says:

      Can I ask where is this school? What is the name? I am so fascinated by innovative schools. Acton Academy is one – I wish I could move there just for the school.

      Why is innovation so rare? Well I imagine there are various vested interests…and if we just follow the money we might understand better. Common Core is creating one GIANT market for big companies producing curriculum materials and providing testing. The schools in my town are all falling in line…taking orders from the federal government.

      • Bird
        Bird says:

        It’s the 3-5 charter in Hartland, WI. I couldn’t get the picture of what they were from their website. I learned a hell of a lot from being there that will transfer to my homeschooling, my own work as a consultant, my life generally.

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