Boys Don’t Try? is an accessible, wide-ranging, and timely book tackling some of the big issues surrounding boys’ under-performance in British schools, from peer pressure and mental health to violence and rape culture. The chapters are split into logical sections, moving from anecdotal context to an overview of the current research, and finally to some practical solutions. This is particularly helpful when returning to the book for quick reference after reading. Everything is laid out clearly and key information is easy to find.
The most compelling sections, for me, were the opening section, which deals with some common misconceptions about teaching boys (this includes debunking the idea that boys need to be active and “hands on” in order to learn effectively, and that competition is a surefire way to engage boys in their learning), and the later section on sex and sexism, which covers issues like the sexual harassment of teachers, and the influence of pornography on teenage boys’ understanding of women and sex.
Sexist attitudes, particularly when they lead to harassment, are something that many schools and teachers struggle to deal with effectively – as many of the anecdotes shared in this book attest. Pinkett and Rogers’ holistic approach to this, and to other thorny topics covered in this book, is part of what makes it such essential reading.
Boys Don’t Try? has been rightfully praised by many educators, and I share the sense that it is a helpful and engaging read with much to offer for teachers looking to improve boys’ learning and overall engagement with school. There were, however, a couple of things I struggled with that I’d like to briefly address here. Foremost among these was the attempt to reclassify “toxic masculinity” as “non-tender masculinity.”
It is important to say that I can sympathise with the impulse to dilute this term in relation to children and teens. It is right to consider, as the authors do, how boys might feel at their behaviours or attitudes being labelled in this way, and I’m not opposed to rethinking the application of the “toxic” label. Nevertheless, I am not convinced by the solution proposed in this book.
Toxic masculinity is a term that is used to describe the way that certain masculine-coded traits can become unhealthy or “toxic”, such as when a reluctance to talk about emotions turns into instances of male suicide, or when an expectation of sexual prowess/experience turns into misogyny or violence against women. In this context, the term “non-tender masculinity” trivialises the issues described (“Elliot Rodger, perpetrator of the Isla Vista massacre, was a product of non-tender masculinity” really doesn’t strike the right tone). “Toxic masculinity”, on the other hand, is a phrase that impresses upon people the serious consequences for both men, and wider society, of a narrow and highly prescriptive vision of manhood.
In addition to diluting an intentionally hard-hitting phrase, the tender/non-tender dynamic is itself needlessly restrictive. It imposes a binary that excludes a number of traits. Where does a healthy sense of competition fit within this framework? Or a strong work ethic? These aren’t tender traits like strong emotional literacy or a tendency toward nurturing, but neither are they to be discouraged. These middle-of-the-road characteristics have nowhere to go in such a construct, despite forming part of the male experience for many. The framing of “toxic masculinity”, on the other hand, allows for a variety of healthy, non-toxic masculinities to exist in their many expressions and variations, tender or not.
My second issue is with the argument put forward in support of mixed-ability classes. Again, it is the construction of the argument rather than the principle behind it that I struggled with. The authors present the statistic that lower-performing pupils fall behind by one to two months per year when placed in sets as a justification for implementing mixed-ability classes. Yet, at the same time, they dismiss the statistic that higher-performing pupils make one or two months *progress* per year in sets with the offhand remark: “I don’t know about you, but one or two months progress over a whole year doesn’t seem to be worth the damage it does to everyone else” (p32). Two months of progress is either a significant amount or it isn’t, and if it is then the loss of one or two months progress for the more advanced learners should be recognised and mitigated rather than shrugged at.
Fortunately, these criticisms do not alter the substance of the book, which is a much-needed examination of how we can get boys engaged in their learning and building more positive relationships, both within school and in the wider world. Boys Don’t Try? is a thought-provoking and relatively quick read that will doubtless prove valuable to teachers and school leaders alike.