Sunday, 25 September 2016

The assumptions we make about quiet, obedient females and the noisy, confrontational males

I walk into the room, holding a soap box. I place it in the middle of the room and step on it. I begin:

I am going to be incredibly honest: I felt incredibly uncomfortable this week when I typed for a document that, in English, we study boy-friendly texts. Why did I feel uncomfortable? Well, I felt uncomfortable for several reasons.
One: In my heart I know Macbeth isn’t a play we teach because of the boys; it is a play we teach because it is clever, engaging and rich in language and techniques.

Two: I worry that education is being driven solely by and for boys.

Three: I am a father of two quiet, friendly girls who, I think, are lost in the education system because they are female and they are quiet; their success is assumed because they are female.  
There is a national issue with girls outperforming boys. I don’t deny it is an issue and I don’t deny things have to be done about it.  But, I tend to think it is something more complex than the explicit things we do in lessons. A book choice is not the answer. Making lessons visual and active is not the answer. Picking topics boys like is not the answer. It has to be the culture. The culture the boys exist in is the key driving motivator for change.

The problem with an over-emphasis on boys is it neglects girls. It is a common joke my daughters have about the Friday star of the week. Their primary school has a number of naughty boys, as viewed by my daughters, featured as ‘star of the week’. In fact, some are regular stars, and, they then go on to bully kids in the playground for the rest of the week, according to my daughters. To be honest, the stars hardly fluttered between exceptionally bright and over performing students and naughty boys, and occasionally, naughty girls. The curse of being a teacher and a parent is that you see through systems. My daughters were employed by a previous teacher to befriend all new students, which they did with aplomb because they are kind and friendly. Did they get the praise for this? Not really. But, the teacher relied on this approach again and again. Every time a new child appeared in the class, my daughters were asked to look after said new pupil. While my daughters did this, Tom got a star for being quiet for one day. The parameters for behaviour in boys and girls in not equal. Girls are generally praised for exceptional work. Boys are praised for behaving appropriately. There are two measuring sticks for boys and girls.
Now, I don’t think for a second this is isolated to one classroom, one school. I think it is everywhere. It permeates our culture. We are more likely to praise boys for their behaviour and the girls for their work. Is it any wonder that girls perform better nationally if all we are praising boys for is their behaviour?   I am more concerned about how there is a large proportion of girls who are neglected in our system and that’s because they are the nice, quiet, obedient students in the system. Every leader should be challenging both sides of the coin. Focus on one side and you neglect half of the school population. If SEN students were being ignored, there would be an uproar.  Yet, I think girls are heavily ignored, neglected and forgotten in all aspects of education. It is assumed they will succeed and it is this assumption that happens daily, weekly, month that is dangerous. Because girls don’t take a teacher’s attention, time and energy as much as the boys do, they are assumed to be doing well.

The more I think about the gender issue, the more I think it is something cohesive that is needed to address things in the secondary schools. Personally, I think the cohesive element is a careers focus. There was one boy in a previous tutor group who really embodies this aspect to me. From Year 8, he had it in his head that he wanted to be a dentist.  Throughout Years 9, 10 and 11 he kept this thought at the centre if what he did. It motivated him. It drove him to work and succeed. This was a boy motivated to succeed.  He had a clear goal.
I am conscious that the careers’ education in schools is a mixed bag. I have yet to see it done successfully. It can be non-existent, sparse or misdirected. A child with a clear goal is a child with direction, yet we often lead that direction to the students and their parents. The assumption that a student knows what they want to do in life lies at the heart of most schools. Over the years, the boys and girls I have seen underperform have underperformed because they didn’t have a clear pull and a relevant push.
For me, growing up in a small, parochial coastal town was the pull. I wanted to escape. I worked hard to escape and escape I did. That drove me as a male teenager. I wanted out and that’s what I worked hard to do. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the town I grew up in. There was very little push. My parents didn’t push me. The school didn’t push me. For example, the career’s advice told me to be an archaeologist.  All I knew was that I wanted to escape. The geography pushed me in a way.

Schools are pushing academically but are they pushing students to the end goal. Boys, especially, are goal orientated but our goals are different. A teacher’s goals are academic progress and attainment. A student’s goal should be their future. Are we too narrow focused on the teacher’s goals and not the student’s goals? It is assumed that a teacher’s goal and a student’s goal are one and the same thing. When I look at exam performance, a student with a clear idea of their future goal performs much better than a student who isn’t clear about their future. A teacher knows a grade C can open doors, but that is meaningless to a student unless they know what doors are opened for them, and, importantly what doors are closed to them.

So, when I write my intervention plan for boys, I have scribbled out the point that books are ‘boy-friendly’ and instead I am focusing on how in the subject and in the school we can improve a student’s view of the end goal of education. What do they want to be? What do they want from school? How will the work in English support their goals? How will we get students thinking about their end goal after school in Year 7, 8, 9 and 10? Let’s not leave it to the last minute, when often the damage has been done already.

A boy who knows what they want from school succeeds.

A girl who knows what they want from school succeeds.

A student who knows what they want from schools succeeds.

Let’s stop the assumptions about gender in schools. A quiet girl is equally as important as the noisy boy. Let’s stop the assumptions about a student’s goal. Let’s ask them in Year 7, Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.

I am stopping making assumptions about students. I am asking Year 10 what they want to do when they finish their GCSEs. Then, I will go on to the other year groups, finding out what they go to school for. I could use all the boy-friendly books and teaching methods in the world, but they are all pointless unless I address the issue of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’. What will push students to succeed? What will pull students to succeed?   
A culture of education for a purpose is needed. We have to work harder to show the purpose of education.

 I pause. I step off the soap box and lift it up. Slowly and silently, I walk out of the room.



  1. This is an interesting perspective! I'm always conscious of the quietly helpful students, no matter their gender. I tried very hard this year to persuade the leadership that our 'house captains' (prefects, if you like) needed to be chosen in another way. Traditionally, they have presented to their house and the pupils have voted. This always results in a popularity contest in which 'funny' boys dominate. They end up being disastrous as house captains. I wanted the teachers who knew the pupils, to invite some of them to take on this role, based on behaviour and what we might consider a 'role model'. Sadly this didn't quite happen. The leadership felt they still wanted the pupils to apply, but to THEM and then to go through a fairly intimidating process of presenting in front of the heads and a 'panel' of pupils!. Nevertheless, some of the 'quiet girls' (and boys!) did apply. It was extremely difficult to find boys to fit the criteria. Behaviour had to be exemplary and that's where I wonder if we may be biassed AGAINST boys. The upshot, though, was that the teachers who knew the pupils had a say and we have a totally different mix of house captains to previously. The best bit was seeing the looks of delight and frank amazement on the faces of the quiet girls (and at least one quiet boy) who had been selected this time.

  2. I totally agree with what you both say. I often think that we pander far too much to what boys supposedly need in order to improve their performance. Here in New Zealand we have a very strong 'bloke culture' where men are held up to be stoic, strong, rugby playing types who 'man-up' when faced with adversity and laugh off feelings rather than acknowledge them. There is massive pressure on boys (especially the quiet ones you mention Juliet) to conform to this ideal. Research clearly shows that there are significant student well-being and mental health issues associated with this. Things are getting better. John Kirwan, who wrote 'All Blacks don't cry' has been a real ambassador for mental health issues in NZ. However, the point remains that we are not always doing our boys a favour when we pander to a male culture that on many levels is quite harmful to them.

    I totally agree that we need to engage boys in education and improve their academic performance in ways that do not promote a culture that is intrinsically destructive.


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