‘Make sure you include some gruesome content for boys’ is a phrase I have heard a lot over my teaching career, coupled with ‘make it a competition so that the boys will do some writing’. As a young teacher I adhered to this stereotype but did it really work? National statistics show that overall girls perform better than boys at SATs level and GCSE. The gap is narrower in post 16 education but research suggests that is because of course choice (which has its own gender bias) and maturity. So, what can we do to close the gap? How can we understand boys’ behaviour at a deeper level? A delve into the psyche of boys and education could give us a starting point.
With an increasing number of boys at our school and increasing challenging behaviour, it was clear that as teachers, we needed to investigate how boys really do learn and how our teaching has an impact on their progress and school life. The starting point was Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts’ book ‘Boys don’t try?’. This book, supported by research from around the world, investigates the various stereotypes and experiences of boys in education, starting from early years to secondary school. There is a focus on behaviour and the impact it has on learning but also how stereotypes play a major role in boys’ educational outlook.
The initial findings from the book were:
- Boys do not mind which gender teaches them but prefer to talk to their own gender when discussing problems.
- Boys feel that they are conditioned to be violent
- Boys like ‘thinking time’ on behaviour
- Prefer to be praised quietly.
It would have been easy for me to implement all of the strategies that the book offers and presume that our boys feel the same way about education as the research studies in the book, this was definitely not the case. I needed to action some raw data specifically from the boys that we teach at RPCC. Of course, the boys at RPCC would not agree with this research as I quickly found out from across the year groups.
Initially I started with a sample of high profile boys from key stage 3 and gathered their views. All of the boys questioned agreed that they did not mind what gender teachers them but over half disagreed that they preferred their own gender to discuss their problems with. This is favourable to our environment because we have more female teachers.
The majority of boys from both year groups agreed that they like ‘thinking time’ as it gave them a chance to evaluate their behaviour and try to rectify it. They were adamant that their ‘best’ lessons were with teachers that had clear and calm approach to consequences. An interesting find was that only 30% of year 7 boys agreed with quiet praise. It was clear that the high profile boys liked everybody to know or hear their achievements which could indicate that they wanted the positive acknowledgement to rectify unwanted behaviours or use a tool to improve behaviour.
The most interesting data was the violence aspect. 80% of boys from both year groups agreed that they were conditioned to be violent. ‘You have to show you’re not a wimp’ ‘It’s for protection’ were some of the justifications for acting in a violent way. This was not surprising information. However, the most insightful and astonishing comments came from the boys who disagreed with the statement. ‘I am not strong enough to get involved’. I can honestly say that this was one of the very few times in my teaching career that I have been speechless! It suddenly opened up a whole new rationale of how some boys at RPCC were seeing themselves and how stereotypes were still very apparent.
With this data, discussions with teachers, the ever challenging behaviour especially from key stage three boys and a whole school focus, I wanted to implement positive changes. The first action was setting up a boys mentor group. I choose 15 boys from year 10 that were approachable, capable of taking part in discussions and responsible enough to take it seriously. These boys were not necessarily ‘perfect’ but they had the knowledge to mentor and direct positive behaviours. The key stage three boys were chosen based on effort in classes and their risk of becoming high profile. These boys met once a week during tutor time to take part in various activities and discuss the weekly positive reports the key stage three boys had. These reports tracked their achievement and behaviour points with discussions on the reasons for an increase/decrease.
I then turned my attention to staff. It was evident from the staff survey from the start of the academic year that as a whole we agreed that boys were as capable as girls but believed boys were their own worst enemy in education that often lacked motivation. The data also shows from this survey that sexist language and toxic masculinity is apparent in the school and it was often a challenge to tackle it. From this I decided to collate a staff survey focusing on the curriculum content we teach students – do we add to that toxic masculinity? Do we break down stereotypes? From the surveys I received back we have a very balanced curriculum and most subjects have aspects of breaking down these stereotypes. So what did we need to do about the sexist language? The teachers involved in the working party are keeping a tally of the sexist comments they hear in their classrooms and we are collating strategic questions to ask those boys when it is heard. This is so we have a whole school approach to tackle it and the focus is on their justification rather than us shutting it down with ‘That will be not be tolerated’ or ‘You shouldn’t say those things’.
With all of this in mind, we are heading in the right direction. The data has been collected, a working group of targeted boys with mentors, staff analysis and curriculum content assessed. We are a very progressive and the willingness from staff to implement strategies and contribute to data has been staggering. The school closures have paused the research findings from the groups at school but I am still researching methods and strategies that would benefit us and the boys we teach.
I still very much want to take this research project further. Not only continuing the mentors but promote a profile of positive boys around the school – including running some tutor times, lunchtime activities and assemblies. So in all corners of education there are boys promoting the positive values in our ethos. I also want to study boys in primary school and how the transition process affects boys and research deeper into the pedagogy of how we can affect various types of boys – high achievers, boys with low self-esteem and issues surrounding mental health. Given the vast scope of boys in education, I wanted the first focus to have a specific and direct impact on our teaching environment with the opportunity to build further.
I will end with a quote from Dalai Lama, which in these uncertain time seems more applicable than ever ‘When educating the mind of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts’.