As I entered the classroom to teach early this year, the first thing that caught my attention was the number of boys. It was the top class of Form 3 (which was considered the academic adept class) – there were a total of 34 students, and only 8 were boys. It didn’t alarm me just yet, I naturally assumed that this might just be mere happenstance. As I proceeded to the front class of Form 4 (pure science), there were 38 students, 14 were boys, 24 were girls. There was a tinge of concern. On one hand, I was elated – more girls were taking up STEM, but on the other hand, I asked – where are the boys? I wanted to clear my assumption, so I looked into the last class of Form 4, there were 18 students and all of them were boys.
It became apparent to me. What I used to read on blog posts and journals were playing out right in front of my eyes – academic underperformance of boys in my school is being crystallized. This is not a new phenomena, in fact this is well-documented, and even acknowledged in the Malaysian Education Blueprint that the number of boys were comparatively lesser than girls in higher education. What is even more staggering is Khazanah Research Institute reported that female students recorded 15% more than boys currently in upper secondary schools.
Instinctively I wanted to dive in further, I wanted to know why there was a clear academic underachievement of boys both in my school and in Malaysia. So, I took the liberty to talk to both the students and teachers themselves. So, after a few weeks of random interactions with teachers at hallways and eye-opening conversations with the boys in my school (including girls), there are three major findings which I can sum up to – peer pressure, lowered expectations, and the act of reading is associated as a feminine activity.
“Mu ingat mu Mat Salleh ka? Nak kecek English ni…”
To begin with, research has shown that boys are more susceptible to peer influences that encourage risk-taking behaviours (Iwamoto & Smiller, 2013). Drawing a real-life example from my English class, when a male student attempts to speak in English, other boys would start to mock or ridicule him – just like the above line attempts to demonstrate. What happens next is the affected student loses his ‘cool’ status among his male peers, and consequently does not make an effort to learn anymore in order to preserve his social standing. Besides that, completing school work on time is associated with obedient behavior, and boys (particularly from working class backgrounds) do not want to be labelled as ‘well-behaving students’. There is a need for these students to show that they are unruly in order to gain acceptance from their peers, as well as to be part of their own subculture in school.
“Biasalah tu, pelajar laki memang macam tu, nanti ok la tu…” which roughly translates to “it’s normal for boys to underperform, it will be okay later…”
Secondly, another reason why there is an academic performance gap among boys in schools is lowered expectations. When a male student underperforms, there is a normalization, where teachers would reinforce the idea that it is perfectly normal for a male student to not complete his homework, and be academically underachieving. This normalization is harmful for boys because they are expected to produce work which is lesser in quality. Over time, boys would feel inferior academically over girls and this fossilization of lowered expectation eventually leads to poor performance in assessments. Ultimately, boys, particularly from working class backgrounds, would see the irrelevance of education and leave school with a much lower academic attainment. In extreme cases, male students decide to drop out before completing secondary school.
“Ibu kita yang selalu baca… kita dengar je”
Finally, I noticed that boys in my school have poorer literacy and language skills in comparison to girls. Even in front classes, girls tend to generally have better literacy skills than boys. This is further supported in an article by Wong (2018) titled ‘Boy’s don’t read enough’. Now, academic success in Malaysian schools is very much still tied to regurgitation of knowledge, which means reading (literacy) is paramount. Sadly, from the perspective of my students, reading is regarded as a feminised past time activity, which further adds to the gender gap in academic achievement. When I dive in further into their lives, I realize that their perception is further strengthened since young as the parent that reads to them everyday at home is their mothers. So, this reinforces to them that reading is a feminine activity. If I look into it further, boys who occupy the bottom classes are from working backgrounds where their fathers work as house builders, or heavy labourers. These economic sectors do not require much reading, consequently boys from these backgrounds are not motivated to read as they envision themselves working in such jobs in the future. Therefore, this hampers their learning process, which ultimately demotivates underachieving boys to receive education.
So, where do we go from here? I think it is fair to establish that schools continue to perpetuate social inequalities. The goal of education is to provide learning opportunities for students from different backgrounds. The widening gender gap would result in a ‘lost boys’ generation where male students leave school with lower attainment and struggle to live a fulfilling life. In fact, the gap between boys and girls going into higher education continues to widen further. For 2020 university admissions, the Ministry of Higher Education reported that only 31% of male students applied for higher education, compared to 69% of female applications.
Thus, it is imperative for all sectors of education to engage with boys to provide quality education. The ‘lost boys’ generation can be detrimental to Malaysia, as not only it will result in the loss of valuable human capital, but also social and political instability.
Iwamoto, D. K., & Smiler, A. P. (2013). Alcohol makes you macho and helps you make friends: The role of masculine norms and peer pressure in adolescent boys’ and girls’ alcohol use. Substance use & misuse, 48(5), 371-378.