This series of blog posts has been curated by Higher Education Champion Niki Reilly and is all about improving the attainment of boys.
Introductory Blog - 'Boys Don't Try' Webinar - Matt Pinkett
Blog 1 - Engaging Boys - Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson is an English teacher at heart but he is also a Professional Tutor for The City of Peterborough Academy and part of the leadership of Teach East SCITT. He enjoys researching and writing about teaching as well as putting it into practice and is especially driven by helping new teachers develop through their early career stages to become excellent teachers in their own right. He has written for TES and Chartered College of Teaching's IMPACT magazine, among others.
‘Teach boys in exactly the same way that you teach girls. High challenge. High expectations. No gimmicks. No shortcuts.’ (Boys Don’t Try; Pinkett & Roberts, 2019)
In 2017, girls were 12.5% more likely to participate in higher education than boys. Why? Girls aren’t that different from boys. Boys aren’t that different from girls. However, folk beliefs don’t often align with scientific evidence. From the outset, good teaching is good teaching and learning is learning – ‘memory is the residue of thought’; gender doesn’t come into it. However, there is still a strong swell of anecdotal evidence to show how much harder teachers find it to teach boys; they appear to think differently, act on different motives, try less hard or try too hard, don’t wash or spend too much time in front of the mirror… When I first started teaching it was a recommended device to deploy a simple ‘Boy / Girl’ seating plan or, heaven forfend now, seat a tricky and under-performing boy next to an attractive intelligent girl to help raise his effort levels. Please don’t do this. Girls and boys need the same approaches – don’t let gender skew your planning.
Kersey et al (2019) - “We see that children's brains function similarly regardless of their gender…”
If asked to define typical ‘boy’ issues in school, you might come up with the following:
- Boys have poor handwriting and poor presentation.
- Boys don’t like reading.
- Boys don’t like writing.
- Boys are disruptive.
- Boys fidget, fiddle and swing on their chairs.
- Boys lack emotional maturity.
- Boys can’t / won’t articulate their feelings.
- Boys are lazy and can’t be bothered.
- Boys don’t like being perceived as keen or eager.
If you got any of these I don’t blame you – these were my perceptions too. However, these can apply to girls too. Teaching boys has been made harder by societal stereotypes and negative points of view given too high a profile; many boys just want to learn. And, let’s be pragmatic, there are reasons for these assumptions:
The Men and Boys Coalition reported in 2018 that at:
- Key Stage 2 – 68% girls and 60% of boys reach expected standards
- Key Stage 4– 23.4% girls and 17.1% boys reached a grade 7 or above
The statistics, however damned they may be, don’t lie. To add to that, UCAS reported in 2018 that 29,100 more 18yr old females applied for university than males; that is quite shocking. Boys do less well than girls - the average Progress 8 score for girls is 0.22, whilst the average score for boys is -0.25 – but assuming that is a gender issue can lead to labels like ‘underachiever’; these don’t help.
By making resources and designing lessons that are stereotypical it makes sweeping assumptions that all boys like the same thing – football, Fortnite, Nerf guns (my very examples alone showing the danger of stereotypes – how ironic…) By doing this we are also capping their ability to attain that vital cultural capital (first made notable by French writer and thinker Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s)to refer to the accumulated social and cultural knowledge that can help a person make progress in the world! There are also strong sociological connections to class and family, not just in education. According to Pinkett and Roberts in their excellent book ‘Boys Don’t Try’ (from which the quotation at the top of this piece is taken) “Bourdieu argued that we accumulate cultural capital through accessing certain knowledge, behaviours, and skills that is highly valued in society. This knowledge, Bourdieu contended, shapes how others view our ‘cultural competence’ and determines our social status”. Pinkett and Roberts go on to give examples comparing how having read and understood highly-regarded texts or listened avidly to ‘high-brow’ music is likely to make a more positive impression on an interview panel than perhaps being able to quote the works of Dan Brown or sing Abba’s back-catalogue. They go on to state that “pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds generally receive less exposure to ideas that are likely to enable them to accrue cultural capital”, so the implication is clear – we as teachers have a duty to plug those gaps: “the school has responsibility to ensure pupils have the opportunity to build up cultural capital to avoid losing out to more advantaged peers”. If we sweep everyone up in a blinkered stereotype, then we close doors that could be opened; we put ceilings on ideas; we limit access to opportunity.
If you are just starting out as a teacher, please be wary of trying to fit in with your students – they need teachers, role models, leaders – they’ve already got friends. I tried being ‘cool’ and ‘down with the kids’ (the very use of that phrase shows how far removed you actually are from youth reality) in my first years of teaching and although I won favour of students I didn’t draw the best from them; they enjoyed my lessons but enjoyment is a poor proxy for learning – they could have done better. I have realised that the best thing I can be is myself. I may be nothing like my students – hurtling towards 40, greying, bearded, fond of jazz and David Bowie – but therein lies the beauty; I appreciate that context is key. By removing any attempt at meeting students on common social ground I focus more on designing good resources and facilitating effective instruction; I use feedback to ascertain existing knowledge; I engage in dialogue related to learning to ensure my teaching is responsive. Yes, I make sure I throw in a reference or two that the ‘lads’ might understand but ultimately it is done with a pinch of irony – I’d do the same for the girls if I knew that I knew my students well enough. The backbone of teaching is knowledge of your students – without that you cannot pitch your lesson, tailor your content, or select your strategies appropriately and effectively.
The best way to approach teaching boys is to consider that a rising tide lifts all ships (Renzuli); teach to the top, have high expectations and encourage students to rise to them; challenge comes from depth, not breadth, so go deeper into topics, engage boys in discussion, frame learning in contexts they as individuals will understand. In the 1960s Rosenthal was exploring Pygmalion effects and they are still as relevant as ever today – ‘when teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development’ (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1966). Remember that expectations are not the same as aspirations; the latter are what we want to happen, the former what we expect to happen – aspirations are transient, expectations can be reinforced constantly. Khattab (2015) found that having high expectations and aspirations is important: high aspirations but low expectations yielded low achievement. Work with students like this and use the power of parental expectations as well. Open the dialogue out and equip your boys with skills that harness the motivation that can come from high aspirations – self-regulation, metacognitive thinking, effective revision, and memory strategies such as retrieval. If aspirations are also low, boost them; celebrate success, show what success looks like and how achievable it is; praise effort, not outcome.
Consider as well those resources that you do not create yourself – text books. As far back as 1975 MacMillan Publishers were aware of an issue: “Children are not simply being taught mathematics and reading; they are also learning, sometimes subliminally, how society regards certain groups of people”; “It would appear, then, that at a particularly influential period in their development, young children are being fed an unchanging diet of traditional gender roles in their learning materials”. Look through any revision guide for PE, for example, and it will surprise you how many stereotypes are perpetuated – the men are demonstrating the weights, the women the running. The rugby players and footballers are men, despite a proliferation of female exponents.
To conclude, here is what we should and shouldn’t be doing. We shouldn’t be reinforcing gender expectations by:
- Making our curriculum ‘boy friendly’.
- Expecting specific things from males and females in the classroom.
- Using specific terms with males when compared to females.
- Perpetuating the myth that competition is the key only to boys.
- Ensure challenge and rigour for all students.
- Cover topics that increase knowledge.
- Be aware of our own language and how we might be reinforcing specific expectations of males and females in the classroom.
- Reframe academic success as something to aspire to.
Top Tips to Take Away:
- Don’t adapt resources to meet stereotyped needs – treat all students as individuals and acknowledge the individuality that may be brought by a student’s gender alongside other aspects of their personality, engagement, attention and perception.
- Teach to the top, like Rosenthal suggests – be Pygmalion, not Golem.
- Jones & Myhill (2010) tell us that “Beliefs about gender identity informed the teachers' perceptions[…] whereby the underachieving boy and the high‐achieving girl were seen to conform to gender expectations; the high‐achieving boys were seen to challenge gender norms; and the underachieving girl emerges as largely overlooked. The perceived characteristics of the high‐achieving girl are presented as describing all girls. There appears to be a tendency to associate boys with underachievement and girls with high achievement.” Don’t fall foul of this. There is a wealth of literature out there on teacher perceptions of gender, get reading!
- Devote equal attention across your students – don’t allow yourself to spend perceptibly more time with the girls in the group at the expense of the boys; don’t over-compensate, but don’t neglect.
- Manage behaviour and attitude in accordance with issue – don’t pre-determine sanctions based on the idea that boys are troublesome and girls are largely compliant!
- Promote a culture of success and academia in your classroom – don’t let students slip away or float along. Boys can often be seen in terms of what they can and cannot do, so use praise as a powerful tool to boost self-efficacy and perception.
- Consciously avoid language with gender stereotypes within it – ‘man up’ etc! This further perpetuates a flawed vision based on gender, not individuality.
- Pull boys, don’t push them - create an environment that fosters motivation and entices students so they feel a pull towards the goal, instead of using the pressure of deadlines, target grades and fear of failure to push them into something which they may resist.
- Be yourself!
BLOG 2 - The Lost Generation - Shuaib Khan
Shuaib Khan is a teacher of humanities based in Peterborough, a blogger, podcaster and activist. His podcast is #antismalltalk shuaibwriteskhanthinks.wordpress.com
What if dealing with toxic masculinity was a school priority?
Whole-school initiatives can be the bane of teachers’ lives, from juggling with multiple coloured pens for marking to giving individualised feedback to our Pupil Premium students. Many of our school priorities tend to lack an empirical basis, a research informed veneer and can even disillusion teachers. However, as mental health and conversations about wellbeing begin to permeate into the public spaces, toxic masculinity is a very real feature of our students' upbringing.
As a young boy, I was fortunate enough to have a very emotionally intelligent grandfather who taught me the strength of tears. My grandfather was a tough man, but he was courageous and loving too. When I hurt myself, he would always say in our native Punjabi, “Son, men are lions, be brave”. Whereas in school, toxic masculinity was a tacit feature of my experience growing up, particularly around my peers. Crying, laughing too loud, feeling down or even grieving was dismissively condemned and aggressively denounced. We never asked each other how we felt or how we were doing. A veil of silence. A complete void of emotions. This was toxic masculinity.
What is toxic masculinity?
The term toxic masculinity has become ubiquitous and part of the global consciousness. Matt Pinkett, in his wonderful Boys Don’t Try, used the working definition of toxic masculinity through the discourse of hegemonic masculinity: “a strain of masculinity that defines being a man through the qualities of toughness, emotional coldness, aggression, predatory heterosexuality and unblinking homophobia”. Pinkett’s book is a fascinating insight into debunking many of the myths and fads used by schools to ‘engage’ boys. The “failing boys” syndrome has coalesced with the fact that we are, as sociologists would say, experiencing a ‘gender-quake’ in education. Girls have been outperforming boys for a number of decades now. This is nothing remotely new. Gillian Plummer (2000) documented how even during the 1940s and 50s, grammar schools would up their pass rates to prevent girls attending. The concoction of this ‘underperforming’ boys narrative and the fragility of masculinity in late-modern society has created a moral panic around gender. Late modernity is characterised by the fragmentation of socially accepted binaries and paradigms, and masculinity and femininity do not escape these social changes. In 2019, research from the Office of National Statistics found that 72% of the educational workforce was female, with just 2% of the UK's early years workforce being male. The notion of 'boys lacking role models' has permeated into almost every conversation around toxic masculinity. Boys are allegedly 'resistant’ to a feminised education system that goes against the ideals of masculinity.
How can we support boys?
With all the theories and research, how can teachers support their students? What can we do at the chalkface? If toxic masculinity is one of the many ‘causes’ for boys underperforming, how do we bridge this disconnect? I would like to assess three non-exhaustive pedagogical tools I used during my own practice. Before we delve into this, context is of paramount importance. Three years ago, as a young NQT, I inherited a very boy-heavy Year 11 class. Despite being grouped as one of the top sets, this class was mixed ability, challenging and very disengaged. The boys were very aggressive, loud and trying to ‘out-man’ one another. They epitomised the classic traits of toxic masculinity as they greeted me with nothing but defiance and resistance. The struggle to get them to write the date was a harrowing reality I needed to address urgently and immediately, but after a month of scavenging through every teaching and learning book on boys, embedding ‘competitive learning’ and short sharp activities, I was at a complete loss. For me, I needed to tap into their emotional intelligence. What was it about education that was creating this feeling of disillusionment? How could I support their social and emotional development, as well as their intellectual growth? Teaching Religious Studies, I was bound to a curriculum that helps develop students holistically. By nature of my subject, I had the freedom to experiment and with so many behaviour issues, establishing a rapport with this class took precedence before any teaching or learning could take place. What came next was driven by context and understanding my students. My three strategies to challenge and confront toxic masculinity included:
1. Providing a safe place – Firstly, it was simply becoming their safe place. The boys in my class were not deliberately sullen or difficult, they opened up to me many times. They felt as though there was no merit in education, that being a ‘real man’ in their own words was not conducive with learning. The breakthrough moment happened when we were studying the religious views on euthanasia. It was our final lesson of the week and my Head of Department said I should allow the students to watch a film as a stimulus. I picked Million Dollar Baby starring Hilary Swank. My class even stayed in at lunch to complete the film as they were that engaged! I agreed to let them have lunch in my classroom and visibly saw a handful of these uber-macho young men wiping away years. Masculinity in any form is fragile and given this breakthrough, I realised that my classroom was their safe place. They felt comfortable to share how they felt, and many students became unrecognisably engaged in lessons. My research led to me planning and binding in elements of the Young Philosophers' initiatives into my lessons. Students were empowered with a classroom where no conversation was too little or too big. Some of our discussions and debates in class were fiery but so well informed. Providing that safe place for our students could just be one classroom or one teacher but it is necessary at a time of such precariousness around masculinity and gender identities.
2. Relationships matter – A cliché we are all accustomed to hearing is ‘it is all about the relationships with students’. It truly is! Getting to know your students is imperative to any rapport in the classroom. The disconnect my class had with their teachers was based upon this distinction ‘us and them’ and later what I discovered was ‘masculine and feminine’. The boys in my class may have been stereotypically interested in sports but they also wanted to know more about their teachers.
Children are curious and as I began to develop an understanding of my context, I realised the pressing need to bridge the gap between us. I volunteered to do duty in the Year 11 yard and after school bus duties. As my face became more familiar, the disconnect between ‘us and them’ was being bridged. I found common ground when initially there appeared to be none at all. We would discuss the football results or boxing but as these conversations were being had in the yards and canteens, by the time we got to class, attention turned to learning. I cannot express how important it was getting to know my students and seeing how they interacted with their peers outside of lessons. This tacit knowledge which could only be developed through personal observations really did help make serious inroads in lessons.
3. Chunking, grouping and varying activities – I taught this class three times a week and it was visibly too much for them. They struggled with the format of lessons. I had to internally differentiate lessons not only to engage this class but also to make the curriculum more accessible for them. I observed a handful of experienced teachers who, rather brilliantly, kept classroom routines the same but grouped activities and lessons well. This was where I was going wrong. A consistent format to lessons did not mean I was doing the same thing every lesson. I had to be brave, get to know my class and vary activities to give the students something to look forward too. As our rapport developed, I did begin to experiment, trial new ideas and 'Mr. Khan's popcorn boxes and beach balls' really became game changers in winning these students. This is particularly the case with teaching boys. Activities that were innovative, one-off but effective came through a lot of trial and error but once they become part of your pedagogical repertoire, there is no going back. Short sharp bitesize activities and plenty of time for students to complete them worked well. As many of my students struggled to read for sustained periods of time, small timed activities kept them on their toes and made lessons more student-led. With each activity came a sense of achievement and not just learning for the sake of learning. Differentiation became a lot easier too. I began to allow students to pick and choose which activities they wanted to complete. Lessons felt a lot less like Groundhog Day and a lot more like Dead Poets Society! I found that as long as I was keeping my class engaged and they were finding lessons more accessible, we began to thrive together.
I have always found whole-school initiatives monolithic and homogenous. They tend to 'band' students together under a one-size-fits-all approach. Masculinity can be toxic, fragile and in constant ebb and flow, hence rigid approaches are difficult to validate and effectively measure. Young men in society are growing up against the backdrop of social changes that question their very essence and challenge hetro-normative conceptions of ‘being a man’. Therefore, any whole-school approach must be driven by context, by teachers who are given the autonomy to develop strong rapport with their students and a curriculum that is both flexible and allows us to develop our learners’ social and emotional intelligence. My Year 11 class achieved the second-highest results in the school and the skills I learnt with that class will live with me for a lifetime. It was a tremendous turnaround but one driven by context and being given the professional trust and autonomy to support my learners. This is how a school should operate; having our students and their progress at the heart of every decision or policy takes precedence over any arbitrary institutional practice. Using research-informed initiatives and being driven by our context is absolutely key, just as dashing between different coloured pens or giving additional feedback is alienating for many of our targeted students who just want someone to understand and see their struggles as worthy.
Blog 3 - Masterpiece - Harriet Cornwell
Harriet Cornwell is Head of History at Lodge Park Academy in Corby and has a real passion for creating a curriculum which is knowledge rich and inspiring for all students. She regularly writes blogs on this subject and is an active member of #edutwitter and contributes to BeBold History Network (free webinars linking history and academia).
Masterpiece (noun): a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.
The continuing craft of a Head of History, or indeed any head of subject, is to create a curriculum masterpiece. Whilst we will want to consider how the subject of our masterpiece will be viewed by our audience, fundamentally, our artistry should not be driven by the expectations of who will be browsing. For example, in the finer details of our masterpiece we will not include infinite amounts of gory detail just because ‘boys love gore’. Apologies, Dan Snow. Equally, in our unit on the Norman conquest, teachers won’t be explaining how at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, one Saxon drifted under a bridge and stabbed a Viking in the groin! If we did, you can guarantee that a stab in the balls will be the only detail remembered. And history is about so much more than that.
Similarly, our justification for teaching the working conditions of women during the industrial revolution won’t be because ‘girls like to hear about how families were cared for.’ Sadly, these attitudes still exist. We don’t make curriculum choices based on engagement at Lodge Park Academy. You won’t find students at Lodge Park creating castles out of various bits of cardboard, nor will you find us rummaging through a handbag trying to make inferences about its mysterious owner. As a department we have a clear vision of what a challenging history curriculum is not – and that’s a great place to start. So, in this blog, let’s look at the restoration of a curriculum masterpiece. We are not starting with a blank canvas (although that would be wonderful!); instead we are looking at the work we need to restore, retouch, conserve and repaint. Maybe there are details missing. Maybe there are colours which have faded. Maybe there are brushstrokes obscured by the passage of time. The deterioration of a masterpiece is an inevitability, and so the restoration process is one which is ongoing. One must also be mindful that sometimes great works of art are damaged, even willfully vandalized. The same is true of History. Perhaps now more than ever.
So, take a pace back with me and gaze at our curriculum masterpiece (some may call it a roadmap, a structure, a journey - whatever you call it, make sure you step away for a better view). The stepping back, the patient and careful perusal, the screwing up of the eyes as you blur your vision for a wider view… all crucial. Get too engrossed in the detail and you’ll never be able to evaluate where the restoration is needed most.
In 2019, I did just this. I stepped back and examined our attempt to create a curriculum masterpiece. The impression, I concluded, was jarring. The time frame which surrounded our painting was 1000-1945, the subject: Britain. The narrative was, at times, haphazard, arbitrary and unconnected. Our historical lens was almost exclusively focused on portraying Britain. In the finer details of our brushwork, there were references to other histories through empire, but the focus always returned to Britain. Was this simply to engage learners, I asked myself, particularly boys? I also asked, is a curriculum which projects this very monochrome view challenging enough? Is it liberating?
The answer was no. Subconsciously, we were promoting Britain as the centre of the world and we were favouring a dominant, white, Eurocentric history. How was this helping our students to come to an understanding of their place in the world? This stark evaluation of our key-stage three curriculum resulted in an agreement across the department. We wanted change. Our students deserve better.
And so, we shifted the historical lens of our three-stage curriculum. We repositioned ourselves in order to gain a better view, and to ensure we could include global colours and textures which better represented the world in which we live.
Sound daunting? Challenging? Or maybe you’re like me and find this redesign exciting! The process required specific understanding of the discipline; of the tools we use to evaluate truth. So, where did we start? Quite simply, we started small.
An empire-toppling curriculum revolution, akin to deploying the paint stripper on your masterpiece, is massively desirable but depends entirely on your team and circumstances. Check your capacity first. Speaking from experience, take my advice and start small instead. See it as a restoration project, not a new commission.
Like many history departments, our lessons are sequenced around an enquiry question, or a small sketch which will expand into an appreciation of the full vista. Our initial small changes (before lockdown) were focused around a particular year group, year 8. We made some significant changes to our enquiries based on Tudor monarchs and we introduced lessons on Black Tudors, based around the scholarship of Dr. Miranda Kaufman.
So, how did this fit into our aim to create a richly textured and challenging curriculum narrative? In addition to reading extracts from Black Tudors: The Untold Story, the scholarship we introduced challenged dominant narratives about a well-trodden period of history. Several students, both boys and girls, from a range of cultural backgrounds expressed surprise about these hidden histories. The Tudors, from our students’ key stage two experience, focused almost exclusively on Henry VIII’s wives (which has its own issues), whereas this new perspective challenged students’ disciplinary thinking and asked them to consider Tudor England’s growing contact with the wider world.
Forgive me. We have, as is natural, stepped forward to scrutinize, to magnify, to zoom in and appreciate the detail. But to take in the full landscape, we have to step back and look at the overall masterpiece again. And as we do, we see – again – that even in including stories from Black Tudors and voyages out of Britain on slave ships to the West Coast of Africa, the emerging dominant subject is still Britain which, if we’re not careful, is seen the centre of the Earth.
If our curriculum includes references to Black Tudors and the transatlantic slave trade, what does that mean for our students? Is that enough? The students who attend Lodge Park Academy are majority White British. How might the choices we make reinforce their prejudices, or help embed their biases? Surely we need to do better. We can’t do half a job here, we need to consider the bigger picture. We need to include other representative histories into our curriculum and recognize that the Black experience we are presenting is centred on 500 years of slavery and American civil rights and is therefore upholding a narrow view that African history was all about victimhood.
In my first school, when I started teaching (back in 1066, I know), I used to teach a stand-alone lesson on the kingdom of Mali and the African king Mansa. Over time, this tokenistic attempt to include some diversity into lessons became removed from my teaching practice – thankfully. During lockdown, I attended webinars organised by Nick Dennis on West African kingdoms before 1600 (essentially Africa before the transatlantic slave trade). I can honestly say that this was some of the best subject CPD I have attended and it was just the colour our curriculum restoration project needed. The kingdoms of Kongo, Asante, Mali, and Benin allow us to focus on broadening students’ knowledge of local and national communities and civilisations beyond Britain.
The decision to include historical enquiries on African history presented us with a departmental challenge - we needed to improve our own professional capabilities as teachers, and increase our own subject knowledge. The African Kingdoms website, I mean, wow! What a resource! Recordings of the webinars with Toby Green and Trevor Getz are available, along with Toby Green’s A level textbook and (as if this website couldn’t peak anymore) it includes resources to which teachers have contributed. For me, the website is a fantastic resource combining the efforts of on-the-ground history teachers and academic experts. Collaborating with academics in their relative specialisms of study is something which has really improved the quality and rigor of our key-stage three curriculum.
But even will all those resources, and all that collaboration, in the end - what knowledge do we decide to include in our curriculum? By including one kingdom, you are excluding another. Finalising what to leave out will be the hardest decision your department will have to make.
To deal with this subject conundrum, we looked at our curriculum sequencing. For year 7, we decided to incorporate an enquiry on the empire of Mali. This complements our narratives on the Silk Roads, which are now embedded into our curriculum. We also decided to include a sequence of lessons on the kingdom of Benin. Again, this works because of the sequencing; the curriculum threads that are woven through each key stage.
Our key stage three curriculum restoration project is not about garishly painting alternative histories over our main topics. Instead, it’s about blending in added colour, illuminating detail or revealing the stories hidden behind layers of dust and dirt. We make changes to the sketches (the enquiries) which we then seek to incorporate into our bigger picture, our curriculum masterpiece.
As with any work of art, a fine balance and artistic license is necessary. The truth-seeking of history isn’t about including everything; it’s about intention and purpose – about the weighing up of breadth and depth in a million potential decisions. Like any great work of art, there is coherence in the choices of colour, light, texture and detail. And, like any great work of art which moves us, the curriculum has the power to change us for the better.
Blog 4 - MATHEMATICS: PLANNING A “BOY FRIENDLY” SCHEME OF WORK - Victoria Osborne
Victoria Osborne is a secondary maths teacher, who started teacher training in 2011 after a career change from Law. She teaches at a large, fully comprehensive school, while also working as a PD Lead for the Cambridgeshire Maths Hub and having responsibilities for teaching and learning and transition in the Mathematics department.
In the mathematics classroom, a “boy friendly” curriculum is an “everyone friendly” curriculum. I hope those who read that title and were enraged are now placated, as we tear down any assumption that mathematics as a subject body is biased towards boys or that boys must learn in a different way to girls.
Having been teaching for 10 years now, I have experienced a lot of the lower standards that boys are held to when compared with girls. I have heard that boys are less organised, boys have messier handwriting, boys like competition, boys are not well behaved, and that boys need lessons to be more physical. Maths is a subject that largely requires pen and paper and lots of listening; and yet it is still chosen by more boys than girls at A-level and is one of the very few subjects that boys do better at than girls (16.7% of boys achieved a 7 at GCSE last year compared with 15.5% of girls). This shows us boys enjoy it, and do well at it, despite it not being a physical, competitive subject.
So, in my experience, what about mathematics do boys enjoy? The same things that girls do. I find the happiest of classrooms have lots of collaboration to solve problems, discussion of ideas, high expectations and open pride and satisfaction when learning something new and hard. Last year, I had a group of 4 boys who sat in a row, called themselves the “Algebros” and high fived each other for every problem solved. It was particularly sweet because they were at different ability levels and really encouraged each other. A culture in the classroom where boys can collaborate, not compete, and feel proud to achieve publicly. I have had low prior attaining boys in a “bottom set” class who would leave every lesson thinking they were the best mathematicians ever, and tell everyone that, because the culture was one of collaboration, support, and no competition.
Matt Pinkett said that by stereotyping boys as competitive, we cause damage. There can only really be one winner, and while he may feel good about it, every “loser” will be demotivated and less likely to try again. The damage is to their self-worth, and we see that in the cycle of boys in bottom sets who no longer feel they are capable of anything. It is much harder to turn those boys around than it is to nurture them from the beginning.
So, we know what we shouldn’t do in the maths classroom. Don’t encourage competition. That means:
- no getting students to call out their scores - I know it feels like a time saver when you’re trying to take them in quickly, but in the long term it won’t be when you’re trying to pick their self-esteem back up for the next year
- no timed races to complete a task – including times tables grids – reduce the stakes and drop the timer (more on how to manage this a different way below)
- no comparing one student to another
- No class rankings, or displaying scores, the only comparison they should be making is that of themselves now to themselves a few weeks ago
That’s what not to do. What can we be doing to ensure all students succeed? How can our curriculum planning help us promote boys’ learning? The same way we promote anyone’s learning:
- Use low stakes quizzing as much as possible. In maths this could be a simple exit question handed to you before they leave or competing the same style of questions at the start of every lesson. Have you tried “last lesson, last week, last month, last term” yet? One question on each to keep prior knowledge ticking over. It will feed into your lesson, while helping retention levels.
- Consider assessments that show progress for each student. Our classes sit a “pre-test” and a “post-test” for every topic, they’re almost identical but we change out some of the numbers or adapt a question here or there, and students can see how much they’ve improved. They also feel set up to succeed: we show them exactly what we want from them, teach them to do well, and then their final assessment has no surprises. This success breeds engagement: they enjoy maths because they feel good at it.
- Ensure your curriculum doesn’t set a ceiling on any lower sets you may have. We have the same, extremely challenging, curriculum for all groups from years 7 to 9. Sometimes they need more models, scaffolding, or content broken into smaller steps to get there, but don’t just assume they can’t. Matt talks about high challenge, with skilful scaffolding. Don’t deprive students of the joy of challenging and fulfilling mathematics, that’s why we love the subject, we should share it.
- Let the subject BE the hook. There is no need to pander to interests, you talk about pizza, says Matt, they will just think about pizza. Show them they can enjoy mathematics for mathematics sake, and that’s what will create engagement and enjoyment. “When will I ever need this in real life miss?” Answer honestly where you can: “Mathematics is beautiful and amazing, and you deserve to know everything that I know and every other student in this country gets to know. That is your right”.
- Model, model, model. Every new teacher assumes one or two examples should be enough, but it is never enough. Show every example you can fit into the time, every non-example, every unusual example, think out loud so they can understand your thought processes and get them to think out loud too. Matt says this works best when a girl does it first, not because boys need the example but because it tackles any thoughts they might have about girls being inferior.
- Have extremely high standards of mathematical language and plan into your curriculum to teach it explicitly. Do not pick up on accents/grammar when it has nothing to do with the problem, but if they say “point” when you’ve just spent sufficient lesson time explaining when to correctly use the word “vertex”? That’s the language you focus on.
- Dropping the timer doesn’t mean dropping the challenge, it is OK to say “we are spending about 5 minutes on this” but if you are using a timer to hurry them along, that’s behaviour management. When we think about behaviour management we want to think “praise in public, reprimand in private” – if a student is slacking off that’s a conversation to have one on one. Praise the others for their intrinsic motivation in public! That’s what we are aiming for! If the five minutes are up and much of the class aren’t finished, give them more time, give them another example, or get out the manipulatives. I’ve had students ask if they can have more time on a task but the rest of the class were done, I ask them to pause it for now, listen to the next steps and then go back to it. Just like us, students enjoy that feeling of completing a problem.
In attending the webinar with Matt Pinkett and exploring the ideas in “Boys Don’t Try?” I found a wealth of support to back up everything I had already read in mathematics specific Teaching and Learning books and articles. The suggestions are therefore not asking us to do anything extra or new for boys, just to teach all students with consideration and respect. In implementing these ideas from this article, we are improving education for all groups and creating mathematicians with substance. How refreshing!
Blog 5 - BOYS DON'T DANCE - Andrew Granville
Originally from Peterborough, Andrew attended John Mansfield School, where his passion for dance was nurtured. Having trained as a dancer at University of Chichester, Andrew embarked on a career in teaching, whilst working as a freelance dancer and choreographer. Presently Andrew is Subject Leader of Dance and a House Leader at The Whitstable School. Under his leadership the dance department has enjoyed three consecutive years of 100% Grade 4 + results at GCSE level and has grown to require an additional dance teacher from September 2020. He is passionate about providing opportunities for all pupils to access high quality dance training, particularly boys and those pupils identified as disadvantaged. In addition to his present post Andrew has also been Head of Performing Arts in another Kent high school as well as being Director of Dance in a specialist performing arts school in Birmingham. He is an experienced BTEC and A Level examiner as well as continuing to choreograph professionally. Andrew is currently completing his MA in Dance Technique Pedagogy, focusing on accelerating the development of corporeal awareness and developing technical ability within male dance students.
Dance, as an element of the curriculum in schools, has existed since the 1960s. First delivered by PE specialists it centred around expressive movement and improvisation through exploration, and as such gave way to the “stand like a tall tree” witticism that many consider when they hear about dance and drama in the curriculum. Dance has evolved somewhat over the decades and is now a GCSE and A Level subject, enabling students who have a propensity for the discipline to progress onto further training and study. However, there is still a great gender imbalance in the number of boys opting to study GCSE Dance and equivalent qualifications. In 2019 JCQ reported that only 6.13% of entries for GCSE Dance were male. Just over 500 boys in the whole country.
Having taught it in a variety of contexts over the past 10 years, I think I can confidently say that many students enter my classroom with some preconceptions about what is going to take place within it. Masculinity, and notions of how dance is in some way emasculating, remain very much of the forefront of pupils’ minds. I begin my first lesson in Year 7 by asking pupils what they think we will do in dance. “Ballet” is always one of the first responses. “Be fairies”. “Good toes”. “Naughty toes”. “Be pretty”. “Prancing”. The next question, following the reduction of my subject to some semblance of an Angelina Ballerina cartoon, is “Who thinks they are going to enjoy it?”. At that moment lots of girls freely throw their arms up. In my career thus far only one boy has put his hand up. He was swiftly laughed at, at which point I explained that if pupils were laughing at him for liking dance, they were in turn laughing at me. However, after a first lesson introducing pupils to a professional work (which is chosen purposefully because it has two male dancers opening it) and asking them to choreograph using the five body actions of dance, the majority of pupils at the end of the lesson put their hand confidently in the air when they are asked “Who enjoyed today’s lesson?”.
Part of the challenge of teaching dance in a secondary school is that of encouraging pupils to participate. Pupils of all genders sometimes find participating in dance daunting. This is exacerbated by the societal hegemonies that are imbued with the act of dancing, particularly surrounding sexuality and masculinity. However, much dance is represented in popular culture, there is still a negative connotation concerning boys participating within it.
In Boys Don’t Try Pinkett and Roberts discuss the “fallacy of boys’ engagement”. Dance, like any other subject, also has its CPD course leaders extolling engagement methods that will work for boys. Whilst training as a teacher I was introduced to the concept of “boy-centric” teaching. When applied to dance this is often perpetuating what Pinkett and Roberts describe as “Engagement Myth 2: make learning relevant to boys’ interests.” In the context of dance this is often demonstrated through the curriculum each school devises. Dance at each Key Stage is a part of the PE National Curriculum, with its whole curriculum intent explained in one single sentence.
In my own practice “boy-centric” schemes of learning have been a key feature of my curriculum mapping. These were chosen based on “things boys will like” and from the schemes of learning I have seen colleagues use in other schools. These schemes of learning are often based on video games, martial arts or films. Whilst they introduce pupils to professional works and create good levels of engagement they can sometimes limit the creative and technical development that pupils can experience. Reading Boys Don’t Try has coincided with a time when my school are encouraging departments to really think about the intention, breadth and challenge of our curriculums. With the phrase Cultural Capital becoming a part of everyday pedagogical parlance, Boys Don’t Try has encouraged me to actually consider whether I am extending pupils understanding of dance. Who are the equivalents to Shakespeare, Rosetti and Austin in dance and how can I introduce pupils to them?
The reforms in 2016 to the GCSE Dance course introduced a specification which, like all the new courses, made dance more challenging. Not only was this evident through the new 40% theoretical weighting, but also in the increased standard pupils had to attain in the technique, performance and choreography assessments. Technique and performance are often the areas in which boys generally struggle. Technique and corporeal awareness are essential skills for dancers, however they take the longest to develop. There is still a stigma with boys attending dance classes from a young age (think about poor Prince George when the media found out he attended ballet lessons), and dance is very much a discipline in which it is best to begin training the body from a young age. Along with children from disadvantaged backgrounds (who perhaps could not afford to attend out of school dance classes), boys are generally behind their female counterparts who may have been afforded the opportunity to take dance classes from early childhood. Consequently, when beginning a KS4 programme of study there is already an attainment gap, exacerbated by whether pupils have been able to receive prior dance training. Dance teachers do try and give pupils the opportunity to develop technique and performance in lessons, extra-curricular clubs and through performance opportunities. Whilst the student body in my own school are very open to boys dancing, other boys in the country face huge challenges in participating in extra-curricular dance, and it is the lament of a dance teacher when a highly talented boy is deterred from dancing because of peer pressure, or even attitudes that might deter them at home.
Having read Boys Don’t Try when considering how my curriculum could be developed, I began to question why I was delivering my lessons and why I had chosen the approaches used. Why wasn’t I teaching whole lessons of technique? And then I found myself transported back in time to my training and first placement where I was categorically told boys don’t like technique classes. I then thought about how I as a pupil in secondary school loved the technique classes I was able to attend and how when I did teach technique in lessons boys didn’t rebel. They enjoyed the physical challenge. They enjoyed seeing how they improved from week to week. Chancing my arm, I created a technique and performance scheme of work for Year 7 and Year 8 that wasn’t based on something “boy-centric”. The purpose of the unit was to develop aesthetic qualities in pupils’ work. On completion of the unit pupil engagement had been high. Assessment results were good. The boys hadn’t disrupted the lessons and were actually asking how they could improve.
I realised that I had adopted and created a KS3 curriculum model based in part on stereotypical views concerning what boys would like. Whilst I do believe that the previous curriculum worked (we have good uptake at GCSE and pupils are ready to begin the course), I decided I would introduce technique and performance as discrete areas of study. The approach was two-fold, not only would this help to enable boys who enjoyed dance to develop technique and performance skills to a much high degree in KS3, it would also enable disadvantaged pupils to accelerate their skill development in dance, without having to attend out of school dance lessons.
We are extremely fortunate in that our pupils in Years 7 and 8 have one dance lesson every week for the whole year. We aren’t forced to reduce our curriculum to suit the needs of a carousel. I have attached the curriculum summary for Year 7 prior to and after the curriculum changes. As well as wanting to enable pupils (but boys in particular) to attain strong technical and performance skills there were other factors I wanted to address. I really considered which choreographers I wanted to present to pupils. Boys Don’t Try encouraged me to think about who I would consider a great choreographer of the future. Who did I want pupils to be able to discuss if they did apply to University and were asked to discuss key choreographers? How could I increase pupils’ cultural capital whilst also introducing them to both male and female choreographers? There are a disproportionate number of male choreographers working at an elite level compared to female, and even at GCSE only one of the six prescribed works for study is choreographed by a woman. In its simplest form a curriculum that aims to challenge male stereotypes surrounding dance and being a dancer, but also encourages pupils to acknowledge and encounter the female choreographic voice from a young age.