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This literature review will focus on the topic of boys in
the classroom and their motivation.

The focus is inspired by a clear gender divide in those
studying economics at school level

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and therefore a need to understand how best to deal with the
specific issues associated with

such a dominance of one gender. This is further evidenced by
the disparity of those going on

to study the subject at university with 73 percent of those
enrolling in economics in 2008

being male (Tonin and Wahba, 2014), although this does
represent an improvement from

the enrolment in 1992 at 70 percent male (Dynam and Rouse,
1997) and further from 1970

at 89 percent male (Kahn, 1995).

Motivation is understood to be conceptualised as ‘students’
energy and drive to learn, work

effectively and achieve to their full potential at school,
and the behaviours that follow from

this energy and drive’ (Martin, 2003). There has been much
research on gender in schools

and particularly focusing on educational outcomes and
achievement. It is clear that there is a

gender gap in terms of the underachievement of boys (Marks,
2001; Gorard, Salisbury and

Rees, 1999) which is further extended through motivational
differences where the gap

widens most at adolescence and then continues into older age
(Marsh, Martin & Cheng,

2008). It is interesting to note that although there is a
gender divide in educational

achievement, there is a greater variation between boys than
between boys and girls (Gilbert,

2000) and that both boys and girls achieve higher grades in
single sex schools (Aitken,

1999) which suggests such a focus on the male dominated
classroom requires close


The review will follow two broad paths. Firstly, what
motivational factors are boys most

impacted by, both positively and negatively, and how does
this surface in the classroom?

Secondly, how might teachers be able to respond to specific
motivational challenges

experienced by boys? The former will represent the majority
of the analysis split into the

themes of masculinity, socialisation, interest, and fears.

The nature versus nurture debate rages within the study of
gender and therefore there are

clear arguments from both sides about boys motivations and
particularly around the idea of

masculinity. The focus here will be on the outplay of
masculinity, or perceived masculinity,

rather than on the formation in order to understand the
context within the classroom. Davis

(2002) defines masculinity as ‘the social and culturally
constructed meanings or definitions

attributed to being male’ although notes the importance of
understanding it in a number of

forms that shift and change with time and context, but
recognises that the traditional

Task 4 – Chris Larner

understanding is often most dominant. This appears to be
particularly true during

adolescence and therefore the effects of presenting a
masculine persona becomes critical

for teaching at this age. Particularly pertinent during this
period of confusion over identity is

being labeled as homosexual usually based on perceived
‘feminine’ characteristics. West

(2002) and Figueroa (2000) both note the power such
suggestions can have within a social

group, and therefore prompt more overt masculine behaviours
that often do not align well

with driven and focused work. Jackson (1998) labels this as
‘hyper-masculinity’ suggesting

that boys start to maneuver themselves within the classroom
to assert their perceived

notions of a masculine persona. Loud, boisterous and
dismissive behaviour is often noted as

key outworkings of such ideals. Although these behaviours
are probably the more obvious

distractors within the classroom and therefore are usually
seen by teachers as a barrier to

their learning, there are arguments that this could be more
about the instant gratification of

masculine performance (Watson, Kehler and Martino, 2010).
The appeal of such instant

positive feedback from peers becomes the cause of
distraction rather than the behaviours

themselves. Feedback from masculine behaviours and other
stereotypes thus become the

dominant power within the classroom, completely undermining
the impact of positive

feedback from teachers (Stangor, Carr and Kiang, 1998). It
appears that the dual influences

of masculine performance and instant positive feedback both
accentuate the problems of

classroom performance shortfalls. The question of whether
this is a socio-cultural issue or a

classroom issue is hard to equate. The need for teachers to
highlight that masculinity is

socially constructed (Martin, 2003) must go part of the way
but wider changes in society are

required as well.

The concept of masculinity feeds into socialisation and the
behaviours of boys in groups.

Perhaps, understanding boys outside of the classroom can
help to build a better picture of

motivation of boys in the classroom. West (1999) suggests
that traditional masculinity can be

summed up as ‘perform, protect, provide’, and this
ultimately acts as a test and performance

of ‘not being female’. This pursuit of masculine performance
can sometimes lead to negative

role models being sought out who bring with them
‘anti-schooling’ attitudes which create

emotional barriers between boys and education (Hunte, 2002).
It is however worth noting

that Hunte’s study was based in Guyana, and therefore may be
less applicable in the UK

where education is more widely prized and negative role
models are possibly less

accentuated. The point, however seems to hold true that the
social groupings of boys does

not naturally lift up education as a prized good. Figueroa
(2000) extends this to the social

spaces that boys traditionally inhabit which do not align
well with academic work.

Traditionally boys occupied the social space of sport and
outdoor pursuits that are very

Task 4 – Chris Larner

much distinct from sitting still and reading or writing for
long periods of time. These traditional

masculine behaviours and social spaces come together to form
a dominant power where

education is concerned, particularly so when there is a
large body of male students building

a cumulative rejection of the classroom environment. Marsh,
Martin & Cheng (2008) note

that motivation is more a function of the group of pupils
than the teacher. This might suggest

that educators do not have much of an impact in the
classroom when it comes to motivation,

but they do not suggest there is no influence from the
teacher. Thus, any impact a teacher

can make to alter the individual motivation of pupils can be
multiplied through the whole

group as the social constructs of the group start to change.

A large focus of much of the research around this issue
highlights the need for interest in

order to succeed. Angela Duckworth (2017) suggests that some
level of interest is key for

success arguing that ‘nobody works doggedly on something
they don’t find intrinsically

interesting’. Duckworth’s focus is on ‘grit’, the idea that
long term perseverance is a much

better predictor of success than any other measure of talent
or skill. If long term

perseverance is required for success then interest is also
required. Denissen, Zarrett, and

Eccles (2007) highlight that this connection between
interest and achievement is even more

pronounced with boys. This might be because boys, on the
whole, enjoy challenge more

than girls (Molner and Weisz, 1981) and therefore if they
are interested in what they are

learning then they are more likely to stretch themselves
further. Duckworth (2017) asserts

that experts are continually setting themselves stretch goal
after stretch goal in order to

deliberately improve and therefore reach mastery. Education
follows the same premise,

however, boys here appear to be more successful in
completing more stretching tasks and

thus perhaps mastery is more within reach. This may be
evident more in the older years of

school such as sixth form where a ‘muscular
intellectualness’ can be fostered as boys begin

to feel free to aspire academically due to a shift in their
masculine identity (Epstein, 1998).

It’s worth noting however that this muscular
intellectualness is often confined to a

middle-class ideal and therefore may not be applicable
across the educational spectrum as

this stage may not surface for some of the population with
pupils left at the previous stage of

masculinity composed by performance and poor role models.

Interest is clearly an essential component for motivating
boys to succeed but it needs to be

carefully managed and it is possibly hard to have real
impact as interest is very hard to

influence in the class setting. It’s also important to
understand the impacts of different types

of motivation on mastery. Deci, Nezlek, and Sheinman (1981)
argue that those with extrinsic

motivation are less likely to have intrinsic interest and
strive for mastery. This means that

Task 4 – Chris Larner

teachers who provide a lot of praise and feedback, although
increasing motivation, do not

cultivate intrinsic motivation and therefore do not actually
encourage greater interest in the

subject in the long term and thus reduces the effects on

Motivation can be affected by both positive factors and negative
factors, or what Martin

(2003b) would describe as ‘boosters’ and ‘guzzlers’. One
negative factor that is particularly

pertinent for boys is a fear of failure (Martin, 2003). They
create mental and therefore

tangible barriers to learning as they worry about failing.
Boys are more likely to be unwilling

to attempt something that they are uncertain of success and
are not likely to reattempt

something that they have previously been unsuccessful
(Ludowyke and Scanlon, 1997).

These fears cause deliberate acts that confine the progress
that can be made by stopping

when trials are met, going some way to argue against the
idea of boys enjoying challenge.

Challenge, then, must be carefully controlled to balance the
feelings of success and failure

to maintain motivation. If the fear of failure sets in, boys
are much more likely to act in

self-sabotaging ways such as deliberate time wasting, or
putting off completing essays or

revision that ultimately means success is less likely
(Martin, 2003). The need for control is

clearly a desire that must be managed in the classroom,
however the balance must be

sought to reduce these fears and thus their outworkings.
Duckworth (2017) notes that

deliberate practice involves trying to do things you can’t
yet do, failing, and then learning to

do things differently. Without failure, the learning process
is incomplete and therefore pupils

need to learn to accept and build on failure rather than
mitigating against it. This doesn’t

appear to be encouraging greater self-confidence, but rather
a confidence in one’s ability to

adapt and learn. Teaching of boys thus needs to model and
expose pupils to challenge,

failure and processes to learn from weakness. Weakness is an
emotion that often breaks

against the masculine identity of boys and therefore this
stage needs to be carefully

managed to avoid the behavioural repercussions of these
perceived ‘feminine’ feelings.

The range of motivational factors at play in a classroom
dominated by boys is huge, both in

individual motivation and the group dynamics of classroom
culture. Discussion will now focus

towards the role of the teacher in fostering success in
pupils. Firstly it appears that the

classroom climate is an essential aid or barrier and
therefore teachers need to cultivate the

correct atmosphere as a function of their teaching (Marsh,
Martin and Cheng, 2008). One of

the dominant forces has been the pursuit of masculine
personas and therefore teachers

need to create a climate free of social and cultural
repercussions (Watson, Kehler and

Martino, 2010), where pupils can engage effectively in their
learning without the influences of

social pressures. Although this appears to be excellent in
theory, the extent to which can be

Task 4 – Chris Larner

managed in the classroom could be limited with the power of
external forces such as

magazines, social media and cultural history. It certainly
then appears to be a long term

readjustment of social identity that is required through
strong examples being given. Marsh,

Martin and Cheng (2008) questioned the influence of male
teachers on male pupils to

provide good role models that also project a better model of
masculinity, but found that there

was little link between male teachers and greater outcomes.
Ultimately the key component

was the relationships between pupil and teacher. Teachers
who foster good relationships

with their classes often manage the difficulties of
different forces and understand pressures

pupils are under. Although there are desires to exhibit
hyper-masculine personas, the

teachers who can work with this to build a strong repore are
likely to get better results. This

would also accentuate the interest in the subject as pupils
feel more engaged and therefore

build on the fragile early interest (Duckworth, 2017).

Relationships are built through a number of individual
actions with individual pupils which

then echo back into the class climate. One important
individual action is for the teacher, who

needs to have high standards for all in the class. Figueroa
(2000), Davis (2002), and Jones

and Myhill (2004a, 2004b) all argue that teachers often have
lower standards for boys and

therefore subconsciously reinforce the gender stereotypes of
masculine behaviors and

attitudes that lead to lower performance. These biases
within the classroom may be

completely unnoticed and therefore should take higher
consideration in order to create the

classroom climate and expectionations that stretch boys and
discourage negative

motivational factors. However, the way is which this is done
is difficult as boys appear to be

much less receptive to negative feedback from adults and
therefore the pressure is

ineffective (Dweck and Bush, 1976). Baggiano, Main and Katz
(1991) suggest that this might

be due to more emphasis being placed on boys independence
and therefore they have their

own standards of success. In some ways, this could be a good
sign that boys are developing

their own intrinsic motivation which leads to greater long
term success, however, if wrongly

placed the argument could be made that pupils are not
stretching themselves and therefore

do not attain towards mastery. The teacher must balance
between expectations, feedback

and limiting controlling behaviour. If teachers try to
control achievement behaviour the pupils

are more likely to develop greater extrinsic motivations
leading to lower competence,

reduced striving for mastery and reduced intrinsic academic
interest (Boggiano, Main and

Katz, 1991).

Overall, there is clearly a gender difference in
motivational factors and particularly in their

impact on secondary education where pupils are building,
moulding and developing their

Task 4 – Chris Larner

identities in the context of multiple competing influences.
It seems that there is a clear focus

that boys seem to be more motivated by masculine
performance, particularly during

adolescence, relegating academic performance to a lower
status as it is tied closely with

more feminine perceptions. This means that it is hard to
foster intrinsic interest and therefore

long term academic success because the academic life becomes
less of a priority and even

contradicts the pursuit of masculinity. The suggestion
appears to be that in order to combat

the power that masculine identities have over boys during
adolescence, and therefore

develop greater interest that can then be stretched into
mastery, educators need to

categorise education away from a more feminine domain, at
least in perception. Perhaps

boys will then feel the pull of the muscular
intellectualness that breeds the interest needed

for mastery. More research will be needed to be done in how
best to assert reading, writing

and learning as a neutral endeavor that does not diminish
masculinity. Education was once a

field for men and therefore these ideas must be
socio-cultural in their makeup. Both

interventions in the school and classroom scale are needed
as well as cultural

transformation on the merits of education for all,
particularly boys who currently lag behind.

The literature appears to agree on the broad motivational
issues but highlights differences

mostly along age and cultural divides and therefore action
must be taken within the specific

contexts of the pupils’ life stage and socio-cultural

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