“Boys should be happy and successful and able to contribute to society and make it more fulfilling.”
Hosted on behalf of SWIFT by Caroline Sherwood, Deputy Headteacher at Pilton Community College, the idea for this professional development programme came from a love of reading and an understanding that the power of a shared text can make anything possible.
The programme takes its name from “The Boy Question: How to Teach Boys to Succeed in School” authored by Programme Lead, Mark Roberts, Director of Research and Teacher of English at Carrickfergus Grammar School in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and is the follow-up to “Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” co-authored with Matt Pinkett.
Cognisant of the EEF’s Implementation Guide and based on research and evidence, the five sessions will consider the following key areas to implement change:
The plan is to focus on fewer issues, but meaningfully and deliberately to ensure the highest leverage priority. Delegates are invited to think precisely about characterising challenges in their own schools to work towards achieving positive improvements with the opportunity to revisit and act on ideas discussed in the programme.
Mark began with the call to action that the well documented gender gap cannot be allowed to continue.
Nationally, boys are underperforming compared to girls. Locally, the percentage of boys attaining strong English and Maths at GCSE is 6% below that of girls in Torbay, 7% in Devon and 10% in Plymouth.
This first session looked closer at Expectations, Motivation and Relationships.
Myhill and Jones’s study at the University of Exeter on “Troublesome boys' and 'compliant girls': Gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement” (2004) asked teachers whether they thought that boys should do as well as girls at school. The results were significant. 80% of teachers from the collection of primaries, one middle and one secondary schools in the study said yes, boys should do as well as girls; which might, at first, appear to be positive. However, it calls into question the 20% who had clearly “written off” boys before they had even started.
Teachers were found to refer to attitudes to girls and boys achieving well or not well at school as “typical” behaviour and if they performed better or less than expected, often noted this as an anomaly.
In particular, the interesting disconnect was when teachers said that they believed in boys, yet commented negatively, reflected in how they responded to boys in the classroom.
Research found more negative perceptions of boys than girls. Recurring words used to describe boys were “fidgety, immature, lazy, disruptive, noisy and apathetic.”
Labels, as we know, can be damaging and become generalisations. Labels do not help boys who are switched off and need to find new motivation.
Teachers’ preconceptions were found to impact on student performance.
Myall and Jones led a follow-up study a few years later and asked students, “Do you get treated differently depending whether you’re a boy or a girl?”
62% said yes, boys get a “raw” deal from teachers in their school with the following key differences:
The delegates considered ways that this different and detrimental gender treatment might look in the classroom:
Negative messages to boys can lead to low expectations and the risk that the academic potential of boys is side-lined due to the focus on their behaviour, which can cloud the judgement of their academic potential.
Jackson’s research at the University of Lancaster on, ‘I have a sense that it's probably quite bad … but because I don't see it, I don't know’: staff perspectives on ‘lad culture’ in higher education” (2021) looked at “laddish” behaviour and listed the following behaviour characteristics:
High expectations from teachers are vital.
Mark considered the Pygmalion Effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which situations with high expectations lead to improved performance and low expectations lead to worsened performance.
Teachers will not admit that they have low expectations. It is often unconscious.
But the good news is when pupils sense that teachers believe that they can do well, they notice and respond to expectations.
A study by Green, Martin and Marsh at Western Sydney University on “Academic motivation and engagement: a domain specific approach” (2005) described academic motivation as:
“Students’ energy and drive to learn, work effectively, and achieve to their potential at school and the behaviours that follow from this energy and drive.”
Motivation can be either extrinsic and intrinsic.
Generally, girls are more intrinsically motivated and boys extrinsically motivated.
Often, girls do not believe that they are clever and work harder in terms of quality and quantity of work and have better concentration and evaluation skills; whilst boys respond better to external rewards.
Success leads to motivation, not engagement and there needs to be more consistency amongst subjects.
Mark shared his practical tips on how to motivate boys in the classroom:
1. Feed for fulfilment (scaffolding an answer).
2. Rephrase to amaze (add in extras to make it sound like a great answer).
3. Let them write like you (show what excellence looks like and narrow the gap).
4. Do not focus on grades (relieve the external pressures and obsession on goals, encourage boys to enjoy learning instead to reach the goals).
And remember, it takes time! Boys can fall back.
As part of considering relationships, Mark presented a series of scenarios of misbehaviour and invited delegates to consider how they might respond.
In avoiding a confrontation at the start of the lesson e.g. for a uniform infringement, teachers would avoid a public confrontation, regular shouting and be aware of their body language. Time would be given for boys to cool off and reflect and the teacher would use polite, insistent language (“thank you”).
Wherever possible, Mark advised the group to depersonalise boys’ behaviour and to deal with it discreetly. Avoid using individual names. Pluralise, so that one particular boy is not centre stage for a telling off. This can be powerful to remove any theatre /drama from the classroom in front of peers.
Another pragmatic tactic in the classroom, instead of speaking, Mark highlighted how boys often respond better to non-verbal gestures (see how many you recognise here):
How teachers praise boys can also make a difference. Boys prefer private praise. Mark advised against praising for basic behaviour, as it undermines boys’ confidence, as if teachers do not expect them to do anything more complex.
Boys like and respond well to positive contact with home for genuine praise and Mark shared his routine of phoning home to parents on a Friday afternoon to end the school week on a positive note.
Importantly, praise ideas and the boys’ work, rather than them, as an individual.
Research has found the most effective form of communication in helping boys to behave well is direct, but non-threatening, with honestly articulated thoughts and feelings; not using blame, and considering the other’s needs, and trying to patch things up and being firm, but fair.
In conclusion, teachers often have lower expectation of boys’ behaviour and academic potential and in order to support boys’ and build motivation, they need to taste success in a subject. The best way to support boys to behave better is for teachers to adopt a calm and direct teaching persona that is ultimately motivating.
Delegates asked questions based on their own experiences of teaching boys.
Does research show that boys have a dislike of being taught by female teachers?
Reassuringly no! Research shows that boys want kind teachers who know their subject. There may, of course, be some openly misogynistic boys; but this would be a question of deeper issues that need unpacking and guiding boys to understand why this attitude is unacceptable. This would raise potential safeguarding implications and additional support for teachers, particularly female teachers.
Similarly, how can teachers deal openly with boys’ views on the controversial Andrew Tate?
Mark acknowledged that context is key and individual teachers are not expected to work on their own. Work is required school-wide through dedicated staff professional development training, and assemblies etc to convey a positive ethos and culture that deconstructs and unpacks perceptions of what boys seem to like about these negative role models. Is it genuine or provocative?
If, it appears to be a genuine obsession, Senior Leadership and safeguarding input may be needed. Importantly, however, boys need to feel that they have been listened to; otherwise, silencing could belie conspiracy theories.
One teacher noted their work on the transition from primary to secondary school and how boys can struggle more than girls. Mark agreed that peer pressure in anti-school attitudes can be a big issue for boys in how they perceive reading and writing to be uncool and complete homework with the bare minimum of effort.
Notably, boys tend to be less organised; possibly, in part due to the way that they are raised and socialised and expectations on them and they will need to work harder, which takes longer.
Is there research that shows boys respond differently to rewards for good work compared to girls?
Research shows that boys are more motivated by rewards than girls. But in the long-run, research shows that extrinsic rewards are not good for boys. The risk is that when these tangible rewards cease, boys might stop working. At Mark’s school, they have removed merits and instead, have introduced a small square card presented to pupils: “A positive note awarded by Mr Roberts…” which they can show their parents. This moves away from the idea that boys need to receive something tangible for working and behaving well and is a healthier nudge towards intrinsic motivation.
One teacher asked for guidance on how to manage a disruptive Year 11 “boy heavy” (caution the use of “burdensome” language!) double lesson that boys struggle more with.
Mark suggested separating the two hours by building in periods of silence as standard expectations and explaining the reason is to work hard and to focus and to incorporate expectation reminders.
In seeking advice in how to fight against laddish culture and counterbalance toxic masculinity, Mark encouraged the group to be kind and gentle and to celebrate the good aspects of being a boy; which needs to be school-wide and revisited constantly in tutor time, PSHE etc.
Another delegate asked why boys present their work less well. Clearly, teachers like to see all pupils’ work neatly and well presented. Graffiti on work/books can show a lack of focus and poorly presented work can be an act of rebellion. But to maintain motivation, teachers need to balance priorities and feedback on content and not over-obsess and make presentation the main focus.
We thank Mark for this launch session that opened up an encouraging discussion in how to teach boys to succeed in school.
The next session is on Wednesday 8 March 2023 from 1545 - 1715 and future sessions will deep dive into the key issues that are the most important for delegates’ own contexts: whether behaviour, motivation, and raising expectations.
Report by Jude Owens, PA to the SWIFT Executive Team