Boys are often fun to teach. I always swore I would never teach at a boys' school given my own experiences at school in the 1970s. It was violent, brutish and dull. Sadly, I fitted in well.

Boys tend towards the bovine and girls towards the feline. Disciplining a boy is relatively straightforward if he has transgressed in the classroom. Boys usually accept the appropriate punishment provided it is fair. Grudges are seldom held. This may be a reflection of the attention span of the average male adolescent. The teen years have been described as "an evolutionary cul de sac". Teen girls are generally more likely to bear a grudge and muster support from their peers. A reprimand may result in weeks of surly responses and sullen muttering.

This is gross stereotyping but often stereotypes contain kernels of truth. Marking my students' exams is fairly straightforward because few have done much preparation. I mark what they remember from the previous few weeks because last term's learning is a hazy memory.

Before the exams I had my classes stand up. I asked those who had done significant study to sit. Most remained standing. This may be bravado but I suspect they were just being honest. I was much the same at their age. In a few weeks I will be commiserating at parent-teacher interviews - mainly with their mothers, who usually despair the most.


One of the pedagogical lessons that I have learned is most boys will only apply significant effort if it really counts. Teenage boys of all intellects have a canny instinct in determining when to apply effort. In my own schooling career this instinct kicked in when I sat School Certificate. There was a stark awareness that this was high stakes. It would be extremely humiliating to fail this first real rite of passage. Such sharp edges no longer apply in our schooling system, for better or worse. The lessons of competition are left to the sports field.

There has been much written about the decline in boys' academic achievement compared to their female counterparts. Given my experience in recent years as a teacher in a boys' school I would like to tender several possible explanations. Boys generally prefer high stakes assessment. They prefer a competitive academic environment where their results are comparable to their peers. This competitiveness may be part of their evolutionary hard wiring. Boys are also generally less inclined to read instructions carefully. NCEA assessments are laden with instructions, assessment criteria and much additional reading material that camouflages the actual questions that need to be answered.

NCEA is a standards-based assessment system. Many boys seem to adopt the attitude that meeting the minimum standard will suffice. In economics this is called statisficing. My students have an unsettling affection for this term when I teach it which suggests an intuitive understanding of its meaning.

One of the dark secrets of education is that there is no perfect assessment system. I have always had a wry amusement that secondary teachers tie themselves in knots over assessment. They want a system that is fair, manageable and transparent. Many students then move on to tertiary study. They are then often subjected to highly competitive assessment processes to gain entry into restricted professional courses. They are ranked for admission purposes. This is often their first experience of a competitive academic environment. They then move into a competitive job market.

I am glad to have experienced teaching in a boys' school. There is a risk of overgeneralising the differences between genders in their approach to learning. But I have an uneasy feeling that the decline in relative achievement by boys may partially be due to the change in the methods of assessment.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has written several economics texts.