What Works

A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men

What Works book cover

How Do We Encourage Boys to Cooperate?
By Michael Thompson

A fifth grade art teacher in a progressive coed school once said to me, with a hint of exasperation in her voice, "I should probably just teach in a single-sex school." When I asked her why, she told me that when she gives out a choice of group building projects to her class, either a bridge or a catapult, the girls always choose to build a bridge and invariably begin with a cooperative discussion in which they share their designs. By contrast, the boys invariably choose the catapult and as soon as they have made their choice they begin to shout out their ideas and start building individual catapults and launching stones before they belatedly agree on a design as a group. The boys, she reported, don't really start to cooperate until several solo catapult designs have failed. The boys have to learn from experience before they become a group. 

I listened to her story and asked, "Well, do you want to teach in a girls' school or a boys' school?" She sighed and said, "I was thinking a girls' school, but then I would miss all the boy creativity and risk-taking." The lesson I take from this story: boy competitiveness (enthusiasm? impulsivity? hard-headedness?) and girl cooperativeness (empathy? caution? perfectionism?) are more complex than they first appear.

Nevertheless, it remains axiomatic that girls cooperate and boys compete. But does research support the stereotype? Yes and no. There is evidence from Europe and the United States that boys from age four to nine are more motivated by competition than girls, for example in a sprinting contest, particularly if an individual winner is to be celebrated at the end. Boys are more likely to choose a tournament format than an individual pay-for-work situation when solving math problems. Girls, by contrast, are less likely to choose tournament situation, even if they are likely to win. It is clear: boys are more motivated by competition, by the glory of the "warrior." Are boys biologically wired for competition? Perhaps. However, gender differences in competitiveness do not occur in all cultures. Zhang's research in rural China and on three different ethnic groups in San Francisco found no gender differences in competitiveness, so we must conclude that the tendency to compete is shaped by socialization and cultural expectation.

What are the practical applications of this research for those who work with boys? First, it would be silly for teachers not to use boys' competitiveness to motivate them, especially in academic subjects where it is traditionally difficult to get boys to pay attention. Tapping into their competitive "instincts" might help them focus on areas of traditional male weakness: reading, vocabulary, organization. Many men who were bored in school but went on to succeed in work responded to the real competitive rewards of the marketplace: high stakes, clear goals, and benchmarking. In my experience, when elementary teachers constantly emphasize cooperation and either subtly or overtly disparage competition, they bore the boys and lose their allegiance. Teachers should regularly hold classrooms contests, they should use tournament brackets for mastering concepts, they should create situations with meaningful public outcomes. Boys will respond.

A steady diet of competition, however, will make Jack a dull boy and could produce a class full of striving individualists primed for conflict, with apparently few collaborative skills. That is sometimes the way it feels in school; it can be tough to get boys to cooperate in school tasks; groups fall apart. Yet, when we observe boys engaged in free, undirected play, from Kindergarten block building through a high school basketball pick-up game, we are reminded of how expertly they can organize to achieve their goals. They have the skills, so how do we get them to organize to achieve our goals? There are four keys: inspirational role models, leadership practice for boys, meaningful goals that can only be achieved through cooperation, and celebration of group achievement. You cannot ask boys to cooperate if they never see adults cooperate. We cannot just talk about teamwork; we have to walk the walk. Second, all boys have to be asked to run their own groups and be evaluated on their leadership. That is a standard practice in military colleges; it is almost unknown in mainstream high schools and colleges. Third, boys need to see, time and again, that collaboration (study groups, lab partners, etc.) produces a better outcome than solo achievement. That means designing activities where collaboration is the key to success (not individual achievement disguised as a group activity). Finally, we have to recall the foundational research of Muzafer Sherif, the famous Robbers Cave experiments. Even groups of boys who have been set against one another will begin to cooperate when they are presented with important, superordinate goals that can only be achieved through cooperation. Boys will rise to the occasion and become a band of brothers.


Michael Thompson, (B.A. and M.Ed. Harvard; Ph.D. University of Chicago) Supervising Psychologist for Bellmont (MA) High School, is a consultant, author, and psychologist specializing in children and families. He has worked with more than 500 schools across the United States, as well as international schools in Central America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. His newest book is Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow. He is the co-author, with Dan Kindlon, of the New York Times best-selling book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.

What Works? Conference...Full story

10 Takeaways from the What Works Conference