Teaching boys: Part 2

source: pixabay StockSnap

I have reached an age where not only am I a mother myself, but my high school students seem to see me as, or seek me out as, a motherly figure (a great reminder that I am aging!). In my previous post on teaching boys, I explained my own context and suggested that:

  • Boys need a safe and trusting environment with high support and high challenge;
  • Boys respond to engaging curriculum content; and
  • Boys benefit from regular, tangible feedback.

In this follow up post, I explore a more complex issue in boys’ schooling: gender.

Single sex boys’ schools in particular are often associated with cultures of hypermasculinity that outwardly privilege characteristics of male behaviour such as stoicism, hardness and solidarity (Hickey & Mooney, 2017). Schools and teachers can play a part in what kinds of behaviours and successes are normalised and rewarded within the school environment. Those working in schools can ask themselves questions about how gender is normalised. Are boys encouraged to be alpha competitors or are quieter achievement and ways of being also noticed and rewarded? Is the catchphrase ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘he was just joking’ used to dismiss put-downs of others or the objectification of women? Is strength and success measured by sporting prowess and outward expressions of courage or by a range of possible successes in multiple arenas? What does ‘courage’ mean to the school community? Are multiple ways of ‘being a man’ celebrated and held up as exemplars?

Keddie and Mills (2007)–after the #MeToo movement was launched by Tarana Burke but well before it was popularised by going viral on Twitter in 2017–argued that boys’ education must resist cultures that are misogynistic and homophobic. In this blog post, my point about boys’ education is that our boys need to be exposed to, and accepted in their enacting of, a range of behaviours and ways of being good men. To apply Drago-Severson’s holding environment (discussed in Part 1) to this conversation, boys need to feel ‘held’ by school environments that have a “keen awareness for individual needs and differences, and a willingness to honour and see those in our care for who they are and who they are becoming” (Drago-Severson, 2012, p. 47).

Boys need to be around a range of masculinities and femininities, with both men and women teaching boys and leading in boys’ schools

Schools (and indeed families) need to present boys with multiple examples of and ways to be a boy and a young man; and offer them different ways to express ways of being that are traditionally more masculine, as well as those that might be stereotypically considered more feminine.

A common argument in this space is that boys need male role models, and schools need male teachers. However, the promotion of male teachers serving as role models has been critiqued as obsolete, overly simplistic, and based on 1950s thinking (Moreau & Brownhill, 2017). Moreau and Brownhill worry that the ‘male teachers = role models for boys’ belief sells men/masculinities as a solution to teaching boys, and positions women/femininities as a problem in the teaching of boys. This, they argue, reinforces unhelpful gender binaries by perpetuating the existence of the belief that there are irreducible gender differences.

Lingard and Mills (1998) suggest that expectations around masculinity have influenced boys doing a more limited range of subjects that girls in the post-compulsory years of schooling, as they tend not to study humanities, languages and social sciences in the same numbers as girls. They reject a ‘battle of the sexes’ approach to issues in boys’ education, and argue that more equal gender relations can help alleviate the disadvantages some boys experience through dominant school practices of masculinity. Hickey and Mooney (2017) explore the strategic inclusion of female teachers in all-boys schools in order to nurture gender equity and guard against destructive aspects of masculine cultures. The boys that I teach have a ‘village’ of (female and male) teachers and school leaders around them to create the holding environment necessary for them to thrive and succeed in ways most appropriate to their age, stage, needs, idiosyncrasies, and circumstances.

As a mother of boys and a woman working in a boys’ school, I can see the importance of boys having role models that are both male/masculine and female/feminine. In our home, my husband and I provide our children with different types of role modelling and support. We feel it is important that our boys see me in professional and leadership spaces, in addition to nurturing and emotionally-supportive roles, and baker of their birthday cakes. It is equally important to us that they see my husband as open about his feelings, respectful of the women in his life, and capable of running our household, as well as in more traditional roles like rough-and-tumble-play specialist, sporting enthusiast, and boss. Like any family we have divisions of labour, but we make deliberate decisions about how the choices we make at home set examples for our children, as what they see us doing is likely to influence their own lives, relationships, and approach to parenting.

Hope and persistence

Keddie and Mills (2007) write that a recipe list of ‘how to’s or ‘don’t do’s is not the way to think about boys’ education.

“A ‘tips for teachers’ approach—so apparent in many of the current assortment of ‘boys’ books—will not work. Instead what we have found is that teachers who make a difference for boys do so within a framework that involves long-term persistence and that does not sink into despair over a failure on the part of some boys to change. They remain hopeful that change is possible. Their practices of persistence and hope mean that they seek to broaden the limited options currently open to boys, are concerned with the ways in which boys’ behaviours affect each other and girls, reject deficit models of boys through having high expectations of them, both academically and socially, and acknowledge the ways in which gender is affected by matters of class, race and ethnicity.” (Keddie and Mills, 2007, p.3)

Teaching boys is really about being consistent and persistent, while assuming the best of our boys and supporting them through sometimes bumpy journeys and sometimes questionable choices (especially as their prefrontal cortex—the decision-making part of the brain—is under construction for a long time, continuing to develop into adulthood).

We need to believe in our boys; expect high standards and high achievement (that will look different for each boy and his individual situation); and support them emotionally, academically, and socially. As I said in my last post, we need to approach our boys with the stance that we are seeking to understand them and their world. They need to know that we are in their corner, even and especially when they aren’t at their best, or when they are trying on identities that might expose them to vulnerability or ridicule.

 

References

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 Researcher45(2), 237-253.

Keddie, A., & Mills, M. (2007). Teaching boys: Developing classroom practices that work. Allen and Unwin: Sydney.

Lingard, B., & Mills, M. (1998). Introductory essay: issues in boys’ education. Change (Sydney, NSW)1(2), 1.

Moreau, M. P., & Brownhill, S. (2017). Teachers and educational policies: Negotiating discourses of male role modelling. Teaching and Teacher Education67, 370-377.

Advertisements

Teaching boys: Part 1

source: pixabay

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.

References

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 Researcher45(2), 237-253.

Moreau, M. P., & Brownhill, S. (2017). Teachers and educational policies: Negotiating discourses of male role modelling. Teaching and Teacher Education67, 370-377.