Sunday, 6 March 2016

The gender question: Boys are made of slugs, snails, competition and puppy dogs' tails?

At some stage in every teacher’s career, somebody has uttered the phrase ‘to engage boys use competitions’ in the teacher’s presence. It might have been in a book, on a blog or in a CPD session. Jim, we have a problem with boys underachieving in school, what shall we do? Let’s give boys points. Let’s make lessons a competition. Let’s give them computers, because boys love gadgets. Let’s give an award for boy who has achieved the most. Because, we all know boys thrive on competition. They live for it. Personally, now I am having a secret competition in my head to see if I can type louder than the clock next to me. Hah! I am louder than the clock. In your face, clock! But, what’s this? My daughters are walking up stairs. Their footsteps are louder than my typing. I give up now… I have lost the competition.
This week, I had a lovely comment about the blog: it was praising the blog and saying how ‘this blogger candidly explores her life as a teacher, giving voice to current issues as well as her opinion’. They read the blog and assumed I was a woman. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the only time this has happened. A few weeks, ago a lovely Australian commented on Facebook about reading the blog and again it was assumed I was female. After a few minutes of despair and insecurity and worry that my writing was too ‘girly’ I found the whole thing hilarious. But, it put a thought in my head: how we assume too much about gender. Did people assume I was female because I was a teacher? Did people assume I was female because I am an English teacher? Did people assume I was female based on my language? Or, was it because I am always talking about my feelings? I simply don’t know.

Interestingly, the question of gender and targeting boys came up in a discussion this week and I kept thinking about this idea of assumption based on gender. There is a national problem with boys underperforming. There has been for a while, and, unless some miracle happens, it is likely to happen for a while. Historically, exam systems have been built up around this problem. Girls are underperforming so let’s introduce coursework. Boys are underperforming so let’s get rid of coursework. Then, we have the curriculum. We have topics designed around boys and with boys in mind. Let’s pick this play because it has murder and death in it – boys will love that! Let’s pick a novel with lots of boys in it. Let’s do this topic on engineering, because boys like engineering, don’t they. We even look at the gender of the teachers, when trying to address the problem.

We amend our whole curriculums to suit boys. The girls sadly don’t get a look in. My new SOW on ‘fluffy kittens and the colour pink’ in English literature is just waiting in the wings. Who hasn’t written somewhere how a SOW, topic or text will cater for boys and underperforming?  We move everything to suit the boys. We look at so many big things to address the gender issue in the classroom. We move Heaven and Earth for the boys. They don’t do anything. Why? Because improving boys’ attainment and progress is far more subtle and complex than we think. Again, we focus on enjoyment as being the key factor. If a boy enjoys this, then logic tells us he will improve.

I was one of ‘those’ boys at school. I daubed graffiti on books. I unscrewed tables and the put the screws in a friend’s bag. I passed notes. I gave a student a bleeding nose because he was picking on me. I was removed from several lessons, such as a Physics lesson for giggling. I had to leave an Art lesson because of my temper. And it started young: I stood on a teacher’s toe in primary school because I was in a bad mood; the teacher had just returned to school because of an operation on her foot. Writing all this makes me sound like a handful – I wasn’t, I promise! So I can personally identify with some students in school. So when asked what can a teacher do to engage boys I go from my personal experience and my experiences as a teacher.

1: Ditch the gimmicks – seeing things as ‘boy friendly’ or not ‘boy friendly’ is setting things to up fail. ‘Boy friendly’ only means that it is friendly to some boys and it will probably be unfriendly for a large population of the class. You wouldn’t give Year 9 students a topic of female nudes in an Art lesson to appeal to boys so why would you do the equivalent in other subjects. Put that Minecraft lesson on William Wordsworth down. And, for god sake, get rid of that football themed lesson for Music.    Teach what needs to be taught irrespective of gender. A boy needs to adapt his behaviour and not we adapt our behaviour for him. Engage all students, but engagement doesn’t mean enjoyment.

2: Don’t talk about the gender issue to students –   You are making the issue and issue and naming the problem. Students, when finding things difficult, put up barriers. Giving students the ammunition of ‘gender bullets’ gives them another barrier, or dare I say it, an excuse. Plus, nothing says we care about students as lumping of them together as one homogenous group. The issue is personal for the students, but naming it and publicly referring to it depersonalises it. How many intervention strategies are metaphorically a huge sign to students saying ‘we don’t really care; we are just doing this for the results’? It is about dealing with the problem personally, not publicly.  As teachers, we can discuss the problem, but be careful with what the student sees. A magician works through misdirection and trickery. It may be a school problem, but is a personal one for the boy. Plus, no two boys are alike. They might be similar, but they will be different somehow. Oh, and it isn’t just the girls who are complex.  

3: Relationships – as a male, the relationships I have with people are equally important as they are to a female. Male bravado hides this important fact and some boys will not admit it. Look at boys in schools and you will see that relationships form a part of the problem and often the solution sometimes. A boy’s relationship with his father is an interesting marker. I know, for me, that this influenced the way I behaved in school. My relationship at home meant I challenged all forms of authority and this spilled into school. I had no respect for it, because ‘it seemed’ to have no respect or time for me. Everybody wants to needed. If not needed, at least respected.

The relationships students have with teachers is important. You can’t manufacture it or simply make it. They don’t need an extra father or mother figure. They don’t need an extra friend. They just need someone that accepts them and all their faults. Someone that eggs them on. Someone whose behaviour and attitude doesn’t change depending on certain conditions. Someone they can please and, occasionally, disappoint, but will still be on their side. Someone who sees things from their point of view.  Someone that genuinely cares. And that person doesn’t have to be male.

4: Connections Everybody wants to feel part of something. Look at the high number of students we teach. How can one student feel part of something when there are such large numbers of people in a school? Points of connection are important for that. I have several students I talk to about television programmes. Each time we meet for a lesson, they raise it up as a point of conversation. Sir, did you watch it last night? What did you think of what happened? That student has a connection. A point of reference to make conversation that is not related to school work. They know that they might be lost in a crowd but when they see me they can talk about it. The connections we make are far more profound than we think. It might be a link to a hobby, an interest, a shared experience, a shared joke or something totally different, but it is a connection that says that student isn't a faceless number.

5: Purpose – This might sound obvious, but I think it isn’t an aspect we explicitly share with students. We, the adults, know the purpose of learning a ‘metaphor’ in English. Yet, when teaching it to students, we tend to miss the big steps about some of the things we are teaching. We are learning about X so you can Y.   
The most able students, and mostly girls, can get the idea that each lesson is supporting them for something in the future. This for me was a problem when I was at school. What is the point of learning French if I am not going to do it for GCSE or later in life? Of course, there is a point, but for boys I think we need to make the purpose concrete, visible.
When do some Year 11 students start to work hard? Near the end. Why? Because the purpose of learning has become alarmingly clear to them. The purpose and the consequences of learning isn’t immediate, clear and concrete enough for students. That’s why we have boy floating or coasting in  the system at KS3. There are no visible consequences. Once a students has a purpose then they start to improve and succeed. Over the years, I have seen a number of students float around because the have no sense of direction and impetus. Why do we give most of our careers advice in Years 10 and 11? Surely, students should be thinking about the direction they are going. Look at primary school. The direction is clear. We are aiming to be juniors. We are aiming to secondary students. Get to secondary school and students are aiming for….? What are Year 8s aiming for? What are Year 7s aiming for?    

6: Praise the middle – All schools do this in some way. The best and the worst of a class get most of the attention. That means there is a big chunk of students in the middle who are generally neglected. If they do a reasonable amount of work, they’ll be left alone. They can hide. I feel we need to praise these students or do more with them.
Why do some boys coast? Because the chasm is too wide. Do something amazing and you’ll be praised? Do something really bad and you get my attention for sure? Boys aren’t as competitive as we like to think they are. Otherwise they’d all be fighting to get into the top sets. Sometimes, they just want an easy life. Doing just enough to avoid being at the extreme aspects of behaviour is all they need to do.  
Make sure there is no middle ground for them to hide in. Praise the middle. That’s where transformation needs to take place.

7: Criticise the behaviour and not the student – We have a habit of personalising all aspects of life. A criticism of my behaviour is a personal attack on me as a person. Separate the two. Show the student that behaviour and the person are two separate entities. I don’t like the way you are behaving, but I do like you. This simple definition has helped me no end with getting quickly to resolve the problem with some boys.

8: Teach concrete and abstract concepts at the same time – There are some aspects of English that are difficult for students. However, I find that as long as there is something concrete to learn, things usually balance out and male students are more responsive. Here are four reasons why an extended metaphor is used. Learn them. Which approach is the writer using here? Who can remember the four reasons why an extended metaphor is used?  The sense of achievement and purpose is easier with knowledge retention.

All the above points could be applied to girls. This is the problem with gender. When dealing with gender we pull out every bit of blue and pink bit of gender stereotyping we can find. Boys are presented as lazy, attention seeking and demanding. Girls are presented as hardworking, conscientious and quiet. I’d say they are both, so let’s stop this rot allowing people to tarnish all boys and girls with the same brush. When gender identity is fluid and undefined, why should we be using outdated and old fashioned views of boys and girls? For men, we have lots of different types of male in popular culture and yet we still have this idea in schools of boys being lazy, silly and attention seeking. A stereotype is lazy thinking. If we are going to address gender in schools, we need some intelligent thinking. But, first and foremost, we must be looking at the student and what they learn and how they learn.    

This boy is made up of playdoh, moisturiser, twigs, wine and the eyelashes of a gazelle. There is very little he is competitive about.

Thanks for reading,

Xris – a bloke, a fella, a man, a person of the male species, a geezer, a lad   


  1. I think this is a really valuable post and agree wholeheartedly with 99% of it. Too much is made of gender and it leads to completely failed initiatives and time wasted. If one really wants to help the child getting to know them and their situation better would be of far greater benefit. It's a kind of neglect to not do so.

    However I would take issue with the following:

    "They just need someone that accepts them and all their faults. Someone that eggs them on. Someone whose behaviour and attitude doesn’t change depending on certain conditions. Someone they can please and, occasionally, disappoint, but will still be on their side. Someone who sees things from their point of view."

    This idea of love/care without boundaries sounds good but in reality is exactly what leads to abusive, negative relationships. Boundaries are important, needed and occasionally pushing them means a relationship is not possible. It is doing no child any favours to pretend otherwise. Being on their side no matter what sounds lovely except when you think that my grandmother was on my father's side even when he was hitting my mum.

    I doubt you considered this when writing it but I do think there is a lack of understanding when it comes to extreme behaviours and why lack of boundaries fuels it rather than improves it.

  2. Yes, I see what you are saying. I suppose the boundaries were implied but I can see how it could be read differently. Boundaries are vital in education and life. Thank you


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