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Issues in boys’ education: encouraging broader definitions of masculinity in schools

Wayne Martino (wmartino@uwo.ca)
Dr Wayne Martino is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, Canada

I want to outline what I think some of the issues are for teachers and those working in schools who are concerned to address the educational and social needs of boys (see Lingard et al., 2003b; Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2003; Mills, 2001). While I believe that boys are experiencing problems in schools and have been for some time (Cohen, 1998), I do not agree that all boys are necessarily disadvantaged and that they need special attention. However, I want to argue that there are certain issues that need to be addressed in any school that serves the interests of both boys and girls. These relate to helping boys to develop an understanding and awareness of how the social expectations of masculinity limit and impact on their lives at school and also on their relationships with others (see Martino, 2001).  

Interrogating masculinity in schools  

My own research in Australian schools, as well as my collaborative work with researchers in South Africa and Canada, points to a lack of focus in many schools on encouraging boys to develop a broader definition of what it means to be male. Rather, in many schools what gets promoted, both explicitly and implicitly through the hidden curriculum, is a narrow version of masculinity.

The point I want to emphasise is that what it means to be a ‘normal’ male or a ‘proper’ boy becomes entrenched in many school cultures and is often not questioned except perhaps within the English or critical literacy classroom (see Knobel & Healy, 1998). This system of gender is played out in a myriad of ways in boys’ lives at school and in the broader society. In fact, boys are not often encouraged by other males in their lives to value expressivity, emotional literacy and nurturing capacities. Moreover, what is emphasised through implementing certain boys’ education programs that promote a supposedly more ‘boy friendly’ approach, involving structured activities and competitive tasks, is a stereotypical version of masculinity that fails to account for the full diversity that exists among boys as learners and human beings.  

We need to move away from stereotyping boys or seeing the way boys behave as somehow ‘natural’, ‘normal’ or just ‘boys being boys’. There needs to be a greater effort and commitment to challenging the stereotypes about what is a ‘normal' or a ‘proper boy’ in schools.  

These stereotypes, too often, prevent boys from developing a broader set of skills for coping and surviving in a changing society where interpersonal skills and emotional literacy are being valued more and more in the labour market. In short, it is such expectations that create certain problems and constrain options for boys and men in today’s changing world.  

Men have a very particular role in working with boys to encourage them to be nurturing and caring and to be in touch with their feelings. In schools I have encountered very few men who are committed to doing this kind of work with boys. They themselves are afraid of being seen as questionable by parents. It is in this sense that homophobia often prevents the development of a healthy masculinity and emotional life for boys and men.  

In short, there are ‘rules’ about being a boy which constrain many boys who feel they have to prove themselves, often to other boys and men in their lives. This flies in the face of talk about the value of separating boys from girls at school because they feel embarrassed or self-conscious when girls are around. In fact, in my research with boys, many of them appeared to be more concerned about what other boys think rather than what girls think.  

So the question is how to encourage and embrace diversity and different ways of being a boy in our schools and society.  

Creating safe spaces and embracing productive pedagogies  

From listening to what many boys in my research have said about what it means to be a boy and what life at school is like (Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2001; 2003; 2005), I am convinced that we need to find ways of creating safe spaces in schools for addressing issues of masculinity in respectful and meaningful ways.  

The English or the critical literacy classroom can be a site for teachers to create the kind of conditions where students feel safe and are given the opportunity to reflect on different ways of being male and to understand the dynamics of a gender system which rejects what gets constructed as ‘feminine' (Connell, 1995). The answer is not to import texts into the classroom that reinforce dominant masculinity or which necessarily cater for boys’ stereotypical interests.  

Using the actual voices of boys as text in the critical literacy classroom can be a useful way of introducing some of the issues that impact significantly on boys’ lives (see Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2001; 2002). This is a powerful way of providing boys with a range of diverse perspectives which document their peers’ challenges, questions, concerns and fears. These kinds of ‘realist’ texts speak to the everyday realities and lives of young people outside the classroom and can be used to connect with students in significant ways to promote active learning and engagement in the critical literacy classroom.  

Embracing what has been termed a productive pedagogies model of teaching and assessment is consistent with creating such conditions for active learning. This model provides a useful framework for thinking about creating the conditions necessary for engaging all students in higher order learning and problem-solving activities within the context of a supportive classroom learning environment (Lingard et al., 2000). This model of pedagogy – developed through the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (see Lingard et al., 2000) – provides a useful framework or lens for reflecting on effective classroom teaching and learning within the context of addressing the educational and social needs of boys in schools (see Lingard et al., 2003a).  Elements of such a model of pedagogy include a high degree of intellectual quality, high levels of connectedness in terms of curriculum content and its application to the students’ lives outside of school, supportive classroom environments where students feel valued and are encouraged to take risks in their learning, along with a strong recognition and celebration of difference (Lingard et al., 2000).  

Such a model of teaching also acknowledges that specific teacher knowledges are needed to be able to teach effectively. These are defined as those related to subject discipline knowledge, knowledge of student development, understandings about the purposes of schooling, knowledge of educational policy, as well as a knowledge and understanding of gender concepts and their impact on students’ attitudes and learning. This framework can provide a basis for professional dialogue in schools about developing curriculum, pedagogy and assessment that is intellectually demanding, engaging and which has purchase in students’ lives outside of school.  

If we take this model as a basis for reflecting on boys’ education and what schools can do to address the educational and social needs of boys, it is clearly not enough, for example, just to select texts which cater for the stereotypical interests of boys in the English classroom, without taking into consideration a knowledge about the impact and effects of various masculinities on boys’ lives (see also Alloway et al., 2002). Any approach to dealing with boys’ education that fails to address the effects of dominant masculinity and the range of valued skills required to participate in the broader society is socially irresponsible.  


Simply implementing single sex classes or a ‘boy friendly’ curriculum is not necessarily going to improve the social and education outcomes of schooling for boys. A focus on productive pedagogy in schools as the basis for professional development is what is needed (see Darling-Hammond, 1997; Lingard et al., 2003a). I have introduced this framework as means for reflecting on approaches to developing boys’ educational programs and to engaging boys’ in the critical literacy classroom. Using boys' and girls' own voices and work, as documented in Boys Stuff: boys talking about what matters (Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2001) and Being normal is the only way to be’: adolescent perspectives on gender and school (Marino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2005), can provide a threshold for productive engagement in schools, and help boys to interrogate issues of masculinity in their lives and understand how these impact on others in the community. This is part of an agenda to build boys’ self-esteem and confidence in embracing broader definitions of masculinity and diversity. Failure to promote such critical thinking in schools for boys is to abnegate our social and ethical responsibilities as educators.     



Alloway, N. et al.,  (2002) Research Report: The Boys, Literacy and Schooling: Expanding the Repertoires of Practice, Canberra: DEST. http://www.dest.gov.au/schools/boyseducation/reports.htm  

Cohen, M. (1998) ‘A habit of healthy idleness’: boys underachievement in historical perspective, in Epstein, D. Elwood, J. Hey, V. & Maw, J. (Eds.) Failing Boys?: Issues in Gender and Achievement. Buckingham: Open University Press.  

Collins, C., Kenway, J. and McLeod, J. (2000) Factors Influencing the Educational Performance of Males and Females in School and Their Initial Destinations after Leaving School. Geelong: Deakin University.  

Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.  

Darling-Hammond, L. (1997) The Right to Learn: a blueprint for creating schools that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  

Knobel, M. and Healy, A. (eds) (1998) Critical Literacies in the Primary Classroom. Newton, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.

Lingard, B., Hayes, D, Mills, M. & Christie, P. (2003a) Leading Learning: Making Hope Practical in Schools. Buckingham: Open University Press.  

Lingard, B., Martino, W., Mills, M. & Bahr, M. (2003b) Research Report: Addressing the Educational Needs of Boys. Canberra: DEST. http://www.dest.gov.au/schools/boyseducation/reports.htm  

Lingard, B., Mills, M. & Hayes, D. (2000) ‘Teachers, School Reform and Social Justice: Challenging Research and Practice', The Australian Educational Researcher, 27 (3): 99–115.  

Mills, M. (2001) Challenging Violence in Schools: An Issue of Masculinities. Buckingham: Open University Press.  

Martino, W. & Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (2005) ‘Being normal is the only way to be!’ Adolescent perspectives on gender and school. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Martino, W., Lingard, B. & Mills, M. (in press, 2004) Issues in boys’ education: a question of teacher threshold knowledges, Gender and Education.  

Martino, W. & Becket, L. (in press, 2004) Schooling the Gendered Body in Health and Physical Education: Interrogating teachers’ perspectives, Sport, Education & Society.  

Martino, W. & Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (2003) So what's a boy? Addressing issues of masculinity and schooling. Buckingham: Open University Press.  

Martino, W. & Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (2002) Boys and girls talking about what matters: Student voice as text in the English classroom, English in Australia 135, pp 54–68.  

Martino, W. & Meyenn, B. ( 2002) ‘War, guns and cool, tough things’: Interrogating single-sex classes as a strategy for engaging boys in English, Cambridge Journal of Education, November.  

Martino, W. & Meyenn, B. (Eds.) (2001) What about the Boys? Issues of masculinity and schooling. Birmingham: OUP.  

Martino, W. & Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (2001) Boys’ Stuff: Boys talk about what really matters. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.  

Martino, W. (2001) ‘Powerful people aren’t ususally real kind, friendly, open people!’ Boys interrogating masculinities in schools, in Martino, W. & Meyenn, B. (Eds.) What about the Boys? Issues of masculinity and schooling. Birmingham: OUP.  

Rowan, L., Knobel, M., Bigum, C. & Lankshear, C. (2002) Boys, literacies and schooling: The dangerous territories of gender-based literacy reform. Buckingham: Open University Press.  


A version of this article was published in Learning Matters 9 (2), Catholic Education Office, Melbourne, Australia, 2004: 17–21



Dr Wayne Martino is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Previously he was a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. He has been researching boys, masculinities and schooling for the past decade and his work has been published in refereed journals in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. His book, So what’s a boy?: addressing issues of masculinity and schooling (with Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli) was published by Open University Press in the UK in 2003 and dealt specifically with documenting boys’ experiences in Australian schools. He has published a range of books on boys, masculinities and schooling, including What about the boys?: Issues of masculinity and schooling (with Bob Meyenn, Open University Press, 2001); Boys’ Stuff: boys talking about what really matters (with Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, Allen & Unwin, 2001), as well as textbooks and source books for English teachers: Gendered Fictions (with Bronwyn Mellor. Chalkface Press, 1995); From the Margins: Exploring Ethnicity, Gender and Aboriginality (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997); Gender and Texts: A professional development package for English teachers (with Chris Cook, AATE, 1998). His latest books are ‘Being normal is the only way to be’: Adolescent perspectives on gender and school (with Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, UNSW Press) and Gendered Outcasts and Sexual Outlaws (with Chris Kendall, Haworth Press, NY). He has directed (with Bob Lingard) a major research project entitled: Addressing the Educational Needs of Boys (DEST) and was one of the chief investigators on an Australia Research Council grant with  Bob Lingard, Martin Mills and Lori Becket called Productive Pedagogies, Productive Schools and Gender Reform (2003–2004).


Subject Headings

Boys' education
Girls' education
Education research