Engaging Boys in Maths

For the past eighteen months (three quarters of my teaching career), I have been teaching at least one “All-Boys” Maths class. Many of my pondering posts have been about teaching such classes, with some explicitly referring to the context in which I teach them; Year 10 and 11 students in the same class, sometimes sharing the one learning space with another group of Year 10 and 11 male students.

When I first took the All-Boys class, I read literature, talked to colleagues, and (of course) Googled what is considered, “best practice”…? Being a young male teacher, I was able to connect with many of the male students as the age difference was not actually that big. I was able to quite naturally relate to their interests and draw commonalities between their experiences as a student and those of my own. As well as this, I knew many of the students from being the Sports Coordinator of the school and the coach of pretty much every sports team that was on offer at the time. This gave me an advantage as the teacher walking into the classroom, as I already knew many of the students. I then needed to learn how they learn best – something which is much easier with an existing relationship.

The literature, advice from colleagues, and multiple Google searches kept coming back to one main idea about Boys Education: hands-on practical group work. Cool, doesn’t sound too hard right? Next question was, what works and what doesn’t?

One thing I learnt quite quickly was:

Everything works and doesn’t work for different reasons at different times all the time.

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? It sure does, but I bet any teacher that teaches the same subject, same year level, same gender, same day, may teach the same lesson in the same way and have a completely different experience teaching the classes. This definitely isn’t just with All-Boys classes, however, as a new teacher having just read more research than I did over my four years at university, I expected that teaching two All-Boys classes would be relatively similar.

This leads nicely into the disclaimer for any teaching resource, advice, or pedagogy. Do what works with your class. Don’t be afraid to try different things, but if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it. Many teachers will say, “good teaching is good teaching” which should be never interpreted (nor was it ever intended to be) as, “all students learn in the same way”. Good teaching involves the consideration of a myriad of important aspects, many of which stem back to knowing your students. A teacher who is able to connect with their students, build and foster effective working relationships, and adapt their pedagogy to suit the learners’ needs is exemplifying good teaching. What I have written in this post is by no means exclusive to educating boys in maths, I just happen to teach a lot of male students.

I don’t think any teacher does a perfect job or has every student completely figured out, but it is important to try and do the best that we can – it is all that our students can expect from us and all that we can expect from them.

Here are a few things that I’ve tried and had success with:

Three-Act Math(s) Lessons (Dan Meyer)

Anyone that has read pretty much any blog post I have ever written will know that I am a big fan of this model of Problem Based Learning. These lessons provide a great framework to structure the presentation, development, and extension of a problem. Students are able to engage with the learning activity right from the beginning with a simple estimation or guess. For some tasks, students may even come up with the question or find a problem from the situation themselves. This allows them to develop the question (a concept popularised by Daniel Willingham). They are then required to investigate their inquiry further, learning the necessary tools to make their estimation more accurate. This allows them to learn mathematical skills as problem solving tools rather than silos of mathematical knowledge, explicitly associated with a certain textbook chapter or topic test. Often, insufficient information will be provided to solve the problem or get a more accurate answer. When students realise that more information is needed, they identify what information is necessary in the context of the problem and develop their ability to recognise critical elements and stages of problem solving – an important aspect that expert problem solvers do very well and inexperienced problem solvers do poorly.

Team-based Problem Solving

13059415974_077aaebf2f_cEncouraging boys to support each other in their learning is essential for building a community of learners in your classroom. By working through problems, comparing thoughts and ideas, and sharing learning experiences with fellow students, an incredibly strong sense of comradery is developed and the classroom becomes much more than a learning environment. The classroom resembles more a community of learners that are exploring their learning journey with a sense of teamwork, where learners are supported and encouraged by their peers to take risks with their learning and the teacher challenges their understanding, posing new scenarios to extend what they know and engage them to become more curious to investigate what they don’t know.

A very experienced teacher wrote down a phrase and asked me to look it up as he felt it was one of the most powerful tools learners can possess. The phrase was, “Esprit de corps”. The French phrase, meaning the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honour of the group (Merriam-Webster, 2016), seemed to capture the way my students were interacting with each other, the mindset they had towards learning, and the sense of community amongst table groups.

Optional modes of learning

I believe that it is important for all students to be experiencing learning in multiple modes3557040004_8e56b29f30_z and, at different times, students will voice their opinions about how they feel they best learn. Recently, I have encouraged students to practice the maths the mathematical skills and procedures they learn through problems via online learning tools such as MyMathsOnline and Khan Academy. Some students like to extend a problem from the lesson to explore concepts at a deeper level, whereas others like to follow a plan with worksheets and solutions to check their answers.

I encourage students to not be halted by the feeling of uncertainty when facing a problem, but to see it as an opportunity to challenge their understanding and possibly learn something new. If they do get stuck, or aren’t completely grasping a concept, students know to write down the questions they have and bring them along to class. I find that this way of learning allows for the independent practice and development of mathematical fluency to still occur, while maximising lesson time to act upon misconceptions, present new problems, and have students share their learning experiences with their peers in a collaborative environment.

Discussing the effect of having a Growth Mindset

I will often have conversations with individual students and the entire class about how they are “feeling” when they learn. I ask questions to help them articulate the emotions that they are feeling when they “struggle” with a problem. The “struggle”, I will continually emphasise when teaching, is an essential element of learning. Through such conversations with students, they learn to be more comfortable with the notion of not knowing something, and they are able to overcome those emotions to continue learning. I continually relate back to my own experience as a student and use this to emphasise that although I know how to do it now, I too didn’t know and went through similar thought processes when I struggled with a problem. This, I feel, can be a big barrier to overcome for many students as they have labelled themselves as either good at maths or not good at maths. Sometimes, students haven’t placed those labels on themselves, rather a result of a parent or teacher’s comment about their achievement in a maths task. Either way, students will find it extremely difficult to remove this label without a Growth Mindset.

One phrase that I will continually use in conversations with students and colleagues is:


Obviously the title of this post implies that there is some special way that boys learn in a way that only works for male students, which can’t be more untrue. What is critically important is the teacher’s disposition towards learning and that, as educators, we seek ways to personalise and connect the content and our pedagogies to cater for the needs of ALL learners. Through doing so, we will be able to provide the best opportunities for rich learning experiences to occur for each student in the class. It also makes teaching more enjoyable as the relationships developed through such processes builds a supportive community of learners who are engaged and appreciative of the work we as teachers have done to maximise opportunity and extend potential.

I would never want any of my students to reach their full potential, I find that phrase a very depressing and finite notion.

I would love to hear your thoughts, add a comment below, send a tweet my way, or even flick me an email.



One thought on “Engaging Boys in Maths

  1. Enjoyed your post. My boys are 15 & 12 y.o and we spend a lot of time helping 15 yo with maths homework. He is great with technology, so anything that involves his scientific calculator he enjoys but a lot of the other stuff causes us a bit of grief. Please keep writing these posts…

    Liked by 1 person

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