Boys’ education, including issues in boys’ achievement in schooling, is a field of its own. Education policy and media narratives since the 1990s have emphasised boys’ underachievement in schooling (Moreau & Brownhill, 2017). Hickey and Mooney (2017) note that there has been a ‘crisis of masculinity’ discourse in education, with media and policy fuelling social and moral panic about ‘failing boys’ and ‘poor boys’ and boys as ‘the new disadvantaged’.
I have taught in all-boys high school classrooms for the last 10 years (having before that taught at girls’ schools and co-ed schools). I am a parent of two primary-school-age sons. I’m married to a man. Even our cat is male.
I often try not to be drawn into conversations about girls’ education and boys’ education because every student comes to school with individual needs, regardless of gender. There are differences within boys and amongst girls. My own two children are examples of the differences between boys. Knowing each child—the ‘whole child’ as we often say in teaching—is about looking beyond generalisations and stereotypes, to the individual.
But there are also differences between genders. Boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently and are impacted on by different hormones, leading to differences in developmental stages, and neurological differences in adulthood.
In this post, and in the follow up post, I do some thinking around what is we need to be mindful of in the education of boys in particular. These are reflections, not an exhaustive recipe list or set of ‘how to’ tick boxes. I offer them with the caveat that each school context, each classroom, each teacher, and each child, is unique, and that my thinking continues to evolve.
Boys need a safe and trusting environment with high support and high challenge
The notion of a holding environment was first introduced by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1960. It continues to be a central tenant of psychoanalysis and has been adopted in arenas including social work and education. It was initially based in the idea that a mother creates a safe, secure environment in which her child feels physically and emotionally ‘held’. Developmental psychologist and professor of adult learning, Ellie Drago-Severson, has used this concept extensively in her work around schools and school leadership. In educational contexts, a holding environment can be an organisational or classroom environment which offers high support and high challenge in order to foster growth. High expectations are important. In our daily work, teachers of boys need to create a safe, connected environment for our students so that they feel ‘held’, supported, and ready to be challenged to be the best they can be.
Relationships are key to boys’ learning. The relationship of each teacher with each boy is key to their readiness and capacity for learning in the classroom. Boys who feel a sense of belonging at school, and who feel supported, cared for, understood, and really ‘seen’ by their teachers, are boys who are ready to learn and to reach their potential. In boys’ education, learning, teaching, and curriculum cannot be de-coupled from relationships, wellbeing, and high levels of pastoral care.
I would add that, in my experience, boys are often more vulnerable than they appear externally, but are sometimes expected not to show, share, or act upon that vulnerability. We need to treat our boys with compassion and an approach that seeks to understand what they are experiencing and how they are feeling, as well as one that helps them find effective strategies for learning and living.
Boys respond to engaging curriculum content
‘Engagement’ is a buzzword in education, one often taken to mean ‘enjoyment’, ‘motivation’, or ‘visible participation’, rather than cognitive engagement in a task. Student engagement in the classroom is emotional, behavioural, and cognitive. This doesn’t mean compliance or constant hand-raising to answer questions; it can be quieter, more subtle, and hard to observe. (Is the child looking out of the window thinking about a maths problem or daydreaming? Are they engaged in learning or are they distracted?)
Yet, while engagement can be hard to see in action, teachers spend a lot of time thinking about it and reflecting on whether it happened. In Australia, English is a compulsory subject to Year 12, so there are students in English classes who don’t have an interest in or aptitude for English, but have to be there anyway. As English teachers, my colleagues and I spend a lot of time thinking about what texts will engage the boys we teach.
Engaging, relevant content can develop boys’ enjoyment, engagement, and curiosity in not only the course material, but also the world around them and their place in it. In English, this includes finding texts that are relevant and interesting, accessible, and thought-provoking. It means constantly mining real-world texts, current events, and topical media and political debates. It also means ensuring that boys encounter texts that challenge their own assumptions and the ways in which power operates in society and in their own lives. For instance, this year my Year 11 Literature class studied The Handmaid’s Tale and the genre of feminist dystopias, and my Year 12 English class often analyses speeches made by politicians as and when they happen.
Boys benefit from regular, tangible feedback
Many boys seem to enjoy competition and quantifiable measures of their success. This is something that the world of video games does so well through points, numbers, badges, rankings, and levels. Through video games, boys can get external and regular rewards for their success, and immediate feedback about where they went wrong, as well as the chance to try again. Getting dressed in the morning at our house is often a race between my husband and our sons, usually as part of an imagined game-type scenario, complete with sports-game-type commentary and good-natured subterfuge.
Feedback to students can have an emotional impact, as well as an influence on learning. Timely and effective feedback that students have the opportunity to respond to, is crucial to improving learning. It also allows teachers to adjust their teaching to most effectively respond to what students know, understand and can do. In classrooms this can be through non-verbals and verbal feedback, either to the class, a group, or an individual. Technologies, such as Kahoot! and Socrative quizzes, online discussion forums, OneNote Class Notebooks, and digital feedback, can add variety and immediacy to the ways in which student receive feedback on their learning. Written comments on assessments are important, as long as students understand them and act upon them.
As I wrote this post it became super long, so you can find Part 2 of my thinking around teaching boys in the next post.
Drago-Severson, E. (2012). Helping educators grow: Strategies and practices for leadership development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education.
Hickey, C., & Mooney, A. (2018). Challenging the pervasiveness of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity in an all-boys’ school. The Australian Educational Researcher, 45(2), 237-253.
Moreau, M. P., & Brownhill, S. (2017). Teachers and educational policies: Negotiating discourses of male role modelling. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 370-377.