How to clear the way for boys’ learning
Walking around a school at lunchtime boys seem very content. There is lots of play, laughter, banter and joking around. But what is happening in their learning? Are schools and parents letting boys down when it comes to education?
Australian research says that our boys are three times more likely than girls to be quietly disengaged from learning. Usually, when we think of disengaged boys we think of the class clown, but he’s the exception. Most disengaged boys are well-behaved but uninterested, unprepared and quick to give up.
This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon, according to a 2015 OECD report. It says that despite the fact that boys and girls are equally capable of achieving at the highest levels, “New gender gaps in education are opening. Young men are significantly more likely than young women to be less engaged with school and have low skills and poor academic achievement.”
Of course, all boys are not the same. Children’s learning varies according to a number of variables, including parent engagement with their learning and predisposition to learning. However, as the OECD makes clear, there are trends in boys’ learning that are of concern.
Many leading educators have weighed in on the question of our boys’ education. Ms Jannine Webb is the Dean of Students – Senior School at Wesley College, in Perth. She monitors the academic progress of 600 boys. She makes some interesting observations about the way the curriculum has changed and the way boys learn. Her comments come with the authority borne of a career spent in a number of different educational contexts, including all-girls education, all-boys education and co-educational schools.
Perceptions of Success
Many boys like to compete; who can run the fastest, who can find the funniest picture on Instagram, who can eat the most pizza? Ms Webb says, “In a class of boys, every member will know where they sit in rank. They are also quite concerned with knowing what the ‘class average’ is and where they sit in comparison to that average.” Unfortunately, if boys are not high in the class ranking, or at least above the class average, they may disengage. It is better in their minds to stop trying and have the excuse of, “I didn’t even study” than it is to work hard and ‘fail’. This ties into a fear of shame. Not losing face is important to many of our boys.
Dr Andrew Martin, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Sydney University says, “Too many boys labour under a very narrow view of what success is: marks, performance, the pecking order… Only a few kids can be at the top of a pecking order so students who have that narrow view cut themselves off from any possible success on a daily basis.”
Wesley College has created an innovative response to this problem and broadened the scope of success. They use a formula for the measurement of effort and process. It incorporates ratings of each boy’s ability to plan and organise their work, their completion of tasks with attention to detail and their resourcefulness. They are able to come up with a mark and grade for effort. Ms Webb says, “Boys love being able to measure these seemingly unmeasurable ‘soft skills’. The system also helps them understand the correlation between effort and outcome.” It is a very clever approach and it is very powerful.
Technology is a distraction from learning and there seem to be gender differences in the way kids are distracted. Girls tend to focus on connection through social media. They slip in and out of that digital world quite quickly, for example, checking Snapchat and then going back to homework. For boys, technology tends to be about entertainment and they immerse themselves in it for long periods of time. Boys are more likely to be into gaming or watching funny clips on YouTube.
Technology provides another arena where boys can compete and create self-identity. Boys will spend hours getting the perfect skateboard jump on film to share or just the right slow-motion soccer goal. Then they will wait for comments from other YouTubers. They will also spend hours gaming or sorting out their fantasy football team. It could be argued that this deep immersion used to often be applied to learning.
Ms Webb believes, “If we use boys’ interest in technology as an element of their learning we can see positive outcomes.” For example, sites such as Mathletics, Language Perfect and Kahoot are very popular with boys. On these sites, there is competition in the learning. Boys love the idea of the leaderboards and awards. Some educators call this the ‘gamification of learning’ and, in its place, it can be an effective tool.
Relationships underpin all learning. Children want to know that they are liked by their teachers. Boys, in particular, will work harder for a teacher with whom they have a great relationship. Equally, they can switch off if they feel they aren’t valued or respected. Wesley College Principal, Mr David Gee, often reminds his staff, “Boys learn teachers before they learn content”. Working together, parents and teachers can capitalise on this knowledge.
Teachers need to engage with boys personally and take the time to know about their interests and lives. Meanwhile, parents need to share with teachers important information about their sons that will impact on learning. We also need to avoid blaming, criticising or generally being negative about teachers. Your child’s teacher is your ally.
The Curriculum Has Changed
Since the late 80s, there has been a marked change in the school curriculum. There is now a much greater emphasis on written expression, explanation and showing process, particularly in Mathematics and Science. It is no longer just about getting the right answer, children have to show how they got that answer. For many boys, this feels pointless. They like shortcuts and they disengage when they think a process is unnecessary.
Ms Webb says, “In school assessment, there is now a lot more focus on long-term project work and oral tasks.” These approaches have traditionally been the preference of girls who have earlier language development. Boys tend to prefer tests because they are over quickly and they don’t have to speak in front of their peers.
Skills such as understanding process, oral communication and sticking to long-term projects are important. Children need them to build careers, relationships and to achieve dreams, so we can’t simply change the curriculum. What we can do is get better at embedding these skills in real-life learning situations that boys love. At Wesley, Year 8 boys spend a whole term off-campus learning in Perth city about issues such as homelessness, participating in service, developing solutions and presenting their ideas creatively. It’s meaningful, long-term, deeply impacting learning.
It has taken a long time to bring about equality in education for girls. However, moving forward, we cannot leave our boys behind, and we don’t have to. We have parents who care, teachers who are committed and children who are inherently born to learn. Ms Webb articulates it perfectly when she says, “We need to strive to ensure that all learners have the chance to demonstrate their understanding in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them”.
Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-seven years. She has worked in a variety of school contexts: government and private, country and city, single-sex and co-educational. Currently, she is a researcher and writer at Wesley College, Western Australia.