Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

This week, New South Wales MP Mark Latham, of the Australian One Nation party, discussed the One Nation NSW education policy. The policy uses language like “embarrassing” to describe Australia’s performance on PISA testing, as well as constructing teachers as “substandard” and “underperforming”, arguing that many should be reported and “removed”. It states that “what gets measures [sic] gets done”. It advocates for introducing performance-based pay for teachers, based on measuring teacher performance; “for example, testing a class at the beginning and end of the year and assessing the improvement (or regression) in results over the 10-month period.” Of course, measuring so-called teacher effectiveness is notoriously unreliable and a teacher’s influence on the students in their care is multifaceted. Check out the Twitter hashtag #OurWorkCannotBeMeasured through which teachers describe student progress or teacher work that cannot be quantified through an oversimplified performance measure.

On Thursday, as a result of an article I wrote for The Conversation back in 2016 on performance pay for teachers, I was invited to comment on ABC New South Wales radio about Mr Latham’s proposal. The interview is online here, at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. I explained during the interview that performance pay for teachers has no evidence for improving student achievement. Rather, merit-based pay is damaging. It creates toxic cultures of fear, isolation and competition. It leads to reduced collegiality and collaboration, less innovation, exacerbated wellbeing issues and the dehumanisation of teachers and students to data points.

During the interview I was asked, “What will fix all these problems we have in our education system?” My response was that “while there are issues, part of the problem is this notion that the education system needs fixing, that the system is broken, that schools and teachers are failing and we need to fix them. We have excellent teachers doing incredible work in our schools. Part of what is going to help the system is trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing trust, support, resourcing and time, instead of punishments, rewards and accusations.”

The experience of this brief radio interview—squeezed into the school day in between lessons and meetings in the last week of Term 2—led me to reflect on themes in my upcoming book. Titled Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools, it includes chapters on collaboration, mentoring, coaching, self-directed learning, professional standards and leadership for professional learning.

When people ask me what my book is about I say, “professional learning for teachers and school leaders” (usually followed by a tongue-in-cheek “it’s a real page-turner”). It is about that, but it is also about significantly more.

My book is about trusting and supporting the profession through meaningful opportunities to grow. It is about why, how and on what education stakeholders can best spend time, money and resources, for positive outcomes. It is about treating those working in schools as professionals who are experts in their work but who can always improve, not because they are deficient, but because their work is complex and entangled with identities, relationships, society and humanity. It is about policy that takes the long view rather than aiming for quick wins, and about leadership that empowers rather than inspects or punishes.

It is about nurturing collaboration and collegiality, over surveillance and isolation. It is about those things that systems and organisations can do to develop the capacity of those within the system. It is about how to build productive organisational cultures that simultaneously value, honour and sustain each individual and the group as a whole. It is about meaningfully considering workload and wellbeing, so that teachers and school leaders can best serve their students and communities without sacrificing themselves, burning out or taking shortcuts to stay afloat. These themes are relevant to other organisations and systems, too, not just to education.

When I reflect on my upcoming book, one of its central messages is this:

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing. There is outstanding work going on every day in schools around Australia and the world. We should focus on trusting and empowering the teaching profession.

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Flip the System Australia: Launching the book

credit: Daniel Grant

At the Perth Flip the System Australia book launch, the audience contributed their ideas about the book’s sub-title ‘What matters [most] in education?’

Since its release, our Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education book has been the subject of online book clubs via Twitter and Adobe Connect. Some have blogged about the book. See this review by Darcy Moore and this blog post by Kay Oddone. The online reviews on goodreads and amazon call the book “timely”, “urgent”, “superb” and “life-changingly good”. On Twitter it has been called a “must-read”.

The book is having quite the spectacular and protracted entry into the education reading world. Part of the reason is because ‘Flip the System’ is more than a series of edited books on education. It is a movement and a way of actively engaging with and within the education system.

Before its publication, in October 2018, the three editors (myself, Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson) presented at the ACEL conference in Melbourne on what it means to flip the system in education, and what our Australian book contributes to this global movement.

On the day of its publication, in December 2018, I chaired a symposium at the AARE conference at the University of Sydney titled ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’. Presenters included chapter authors Kevin Lowe, Melitta Hogarth, Bob Lingard, Greg Thompson and Scott Eacott.

In March 2019, co-editor Cameron Paterson hosted a TeachMeet in Sydney on flipping the education system in Australia. Presenters included Yasodai Selvakumaran, Kevin Lowe, Carla Gagliano, Scott Eacott, Mark Liddell and Corinne Campbell. Jelmer Evers, one of the editors of the original Flip the System book, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up, Skyped in to speak to the Sydney audience. You can listen to the presentations from the night on this TER podcast episode.

In April 2019 we partnered with Fogarty Foundation’s EDfutures and the Innovation Unit for a Perth book event at The Platform Space. EDfutures’ Rebecca Loftus was the MC. As a co-editor, I introduced the series of Flip the System books and outlined our Australian Flip the System book in particular. Then each of the Perth authors–myself, Keren Caple, Tomaz Lasic and Ben Lewis–each explained our contributing chapter and our take on flipping the education system.

The panel was followed by a robust, energising, and at times emotional, discussion with the audience, who included teachers, school leaders, sector leaders, researchers, parents and students. This discussion revealed many of the challenges of the current system, but also the passion and appetite for positive action. It celebrated the great work already going on in our schools, the wonderful partnerships already in play within the education system, the excellent teaching in our classrooms, meaningful partnerships between schools and parents, possibilities for meaningful change, and ways to share the important voices and work of students, teachers and school leaders.

One comment that resonated with those in the room was Adam Brooks‘ argument that we (those in schools) are the education system. Therefore, we need to be active agents of the system reality we want to see.

We can and should nudge the system from the inside out. We can and should celebrate and elevate the good work being done in our schools and the voices and stories of those doing it. We can and should advocate for what is best for our students and our school communities. We can and should agitate for the inviting of all stakeholders–including students, teachers school leaders, and parents–into education discussions and to education decision-making tables.

As we editors write in the conclusion of the book:

Flipping the system is about flattening the system, while more tightly interconnecting the members of that system. We argue for a system in which multiple education voices and stakeholders can dialogue constructively, respectfully and representatively. Democratising the system means liquefying top-down power structures and fostering trust and collaboration. It means that those from within and across the education system work together for the good of the students and families being served by the system. This is ultimately a book about the human aspects of education, so often forgotten in our data-obsessed world of numbers and metrics. Flipping the system means focusing on lived experiences, nuances, contexts, and the humanity of education. It means trusting and listening closely to the people within the system. It means co-constructing a system—of distributed, webbed, non-hierarchical and productive networks—from the ground up and the middle out. (pp.245-246).

Below are some photographs of the Perth book launch. Photo credit to Daniel Grant.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for news of a Brisbane Flip the System Australia event coming soon.

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Flip the System Australia: Book club questions

Steven Kolber and others on Twitter have been discussing the possibility of a Twitter book club around the recently published (and excellent!) education book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Based in the unique Australian context, this book situates Australian education policy, research and practice within the international education narrative. It argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. It advocates for a flipping, flattening and democratising of the education system, in Australia and around the world. It brings together the voices of teachers, school leaders and scholars in order to offer diverse perspectives, important challenges and hopeful alternatives to the current education system.

As one of the editors, and author of Chapter 1, below  I share a first pass at some possible questions for readers, based around the sections of the book. My co-editors and the book’s various authors may have additional or alternative ideas.

Foreword and Introduction

  • What do you understand the editors to mean by the term ‘flip the system’? How is this relevant to education? Does the phrase connect with you, or would you describe it in a different way?
  • Why do you think this book might be important? What might Australia have to offer the education world?
  • What do you hope to get out of reading the book?

Part I: Teacher identity, voice and autonomy

  • How do the authors in this section focus on what matters, rather than what works? What does matter in education?
  • What comments do the authors make about commercialisation in education? Do these resonate with your own experience?
  • Why and where might teachers voices be shared? Do you think this is important and even possible? Why / why not?

Part II: Collaborative expertise

  • What kinds of collaboration do the authors present as effective and beneficial? Why is collaborative expertise something worth investing in and pursuing?
  • What warnings do the authors offer around collaboration in education? What differentiates good, productive collaboration from toxic or ineffective collaboration?
  • What is the role of wellbeing in collaboration between teachers, school leaders, schools and education systems?

Part III: Social justice

  • To what systemic inequities do the authors refer? Which of these reflect your own experience?
  • What is the role of voices and stories, versus policies and systems, in democratising education and addressing inequity? In what arenas could and should equity in education be addressed?
  • What are teachers, schools and systems already doing? What could they stop doing and what could they start doing to address social justice issues in education?

Part IV: Professional learning

  • What is the role of professional learning in a flipped education system? Why is it important?
  • How do the authors describe effective professional learning? How does this sit with your own experience of professional learning for educators?
  • What seem to be the necessary conditions for professional learning to be effective and make a difference? What points made by the authors should be considered by school and system leaders?

Part V: Leadership

  • What are the tensions and complex demands of school leadership, as described by the authors?
  • What do the authors of this section suggest as ways to effectively lead in schools and education systems? On what should leaders focus? What should they do and what should they avoid doing?
  • Do the authors in this section agree, or are there conflicting accounts of what is important in school leadership? What does this reveal about the complexities of leadership in education?

Conclusion

  • This is a book that shares diverse perspectives from a range of authors from a multiplicity of contexts. What threads and themes did you notice as you read the book? What draws the book’s contributions together? What differences did you notice?
  • What quote stuck with you from one of the chapters? Whose chapter stood out to you, spoke to you, or surprised you?
  • What is your overall response to the book? How are you left feeling?
  • What do you now understand the phrase ‘flip the system’ to mean? How might you flip the system in your own education context?

Consolidation is not a dirty word

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Running off the Term 4 cliff

In Australia it is currently nearing the end of Term 4. We are a few weeks away from the end of the school year. Often at this time of year I see the exhaustion on my colleagues’ faces, the weariness in their bones. I used to look forward to Term 4 as a time when I assumed the work in schools would wind down. The sun would be shining with the promise of summer, and slowly I would be able to find slivers of time to luxuriate in thorough planning for the year beyond. In reality, finishing the school year as a teacher or school leader is like running full pelt off a cliff. You run as fast as you can until you realise that the year has ended and given way beneath you. But you are still running. Many schools are on an innovation trajectory that leaves casualties in its wake. The desire to be on the cutting edge sometimes leaves us bleeding. As Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor point out in their chapter in the upcoming Flip the System Australia book, there can be no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. They point out that wellbeing initiatives like yoga and meditation add-ons don’t fix the underlying factors eroding teacher wellbeing and morale.

We are in the here and now and then

The end of Term 4 is always a strange time in schools. We are finishing off one year (marking, reporting, preparing for final events), but we are simultaneously planning for the following year (writing course programs, organising staff days, finalising staffing, deciding on strategic foci). We are at once in the present, the future, and betwixt the two.

Education loves the future

In education we are always looking to the future. We are constantly reflecting on where our students are now, where they need to or could be, and how we can help them get there. We strategically plan innovations with the short and the very long term in mind. How will we assess the knowledge and skills we are teaching? What will our students need to know in the world into which they will eventually graduate? On what 21st century skills and capabilities should we be focusing? How might artificial intelligence, automation and data science change education and what do we need to know and do about it? What is the ‘next big thing’ in education?

Competition and short-term thinking

Ever since I started teaching almost twenty years ago I have been in the eye of this future-focused vortex and the relentless cycles of change that are propelled by it. It doesn’t help that education is hyper-focused on competition, or that schools and teachers are pitted against one another. Or that the media constantly runs fear mongering stories about the decline of [insert latest media education trend or most recent high stakes test or particular school sector]. Or that our political cycle perpetuates short termism, making education a card to be played in exchange for votes, rather than a long term priority deserving of deliberate, well-resourced action.

Focus on doing the last big thing properly

The phrase that is currently guiding my own strategic planning for 2019 is from Dylan Wiliam. He says it regularly, and it can be found on page 118 of his most recent book, Creating the schools our children need: What we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead). It is this:

We need to stop looking for the next big thing and instead focus on doing the last big thing properly.

I am focusing my 2019—and by ‘my’ I mean my portfolio of work including professional learning, pedagogy and research at my school—on consolidation. Embedment. Going deeper. Strengthening and enriching the work we are doing. Doing things better and more thoroughly. Spending time in deliberate practice followed by thoughtful reflection and refinement.

Doing even better things

A declaration at the beginning of the school year that ‘this year, we are going to consolidate’ may incite sighs of relief from teachers. What? they may think, Nothing new this year? I don’t believe it! Consolidation is a challenge in education, when there is so much more we could always be doing. At the beginning of this year, I was intentional about what I could let go of in order to do those things that really mattered to me. It is important in education that we decide where our efforts are best placed, and then work to do those things really well. We need to seriously consider what we can stop doing, or do differently, in order to pursue what it really worthwhile. Let’s do really good things well, not ‘all the things’ badly and in a state of blind panic.

The work of consolidation

Consolidation doesn’t mean there is no work to do. It doesn’t mean standing still or stagnating. It means doing better what we are already doing now. It means connecting in with one another to learn from each other, celebrate, challenge and share our expertise. It means continuing to develop shared understandings and shared practices, and looking back occasionally to remind ourselves of how far we have come.

Consolidation in 2019. Can it be done? Watch this space.

Redefining school leadership

Job descriptions for school leaders often encompass a range of strategic, relational and operational work, but the work of school leaders also involves enacting policy and performing for school communities and for governing bodies. The performative aspects of school leadership are often driven by data, testing and league tables. In Australia at around this time of year, schools receive their NAPLAN results, and around December of each year, these results become public on the MySchool website. Schools often publish reports on their NAPLAN data, drawing conclusions and setting goals around it. This is one example of how public data and high stakes testing is part of a school leader’s job. Other examples are the league tables of schools published at the beginning of each year around Year 12 student performance in tertiary entrance subjects.

In a previous blog post on resisting performativity, I wrote:

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Leading is political. As Amanda Heffernan (2018a, 2018b) reveals, principals can deliberately choose to accept or resist policy. School leaders can navigate the conflicting demands of the audit and performance culture by exercising autonomy (Gobby, Keddie, & Blackmore, 2017). In an upcoming chapter in Flip the System Australia, principal Rebecca Cody (2019) calls this ‘riding two wild horses’. She argues that school leaders can and must simultaneously pursue academic excellence (including as measured by public metrics), and a holistic education for each child.

While the seductive cliché of the charismatic central hero persists—from recruitment to media to memes—the more I investigate the theory and practice of school leadership, the more I see it as a constant navigation of tensions. Accountability and autonomy. Individual and wider group or organisation. Bottom line and greater good. This is why it is so important that schools have a clear idea of who and why they are. Values, shared vision, and strong culture can anchor decision making.

I have written before, on this blog and in a book chapter (Netolicky, 2018b), about challenging leadership tropes. Last month, a new academic paper of mine was published in the Journal of Educational Administration and History. This paper is to form part of a special issue on metaphors for educational leadership. The special issue will explore metaphors for school leadership including the punk rock principal, the Robinson Crusoe colonist leader, middle leaders as spies, and head teacher as storyteller.

My article—‘Redefining leadership in schools: the Cheshire Cat as unconventional metaphor’—uses the (as the title suggests) unusual metaphor of the Cheshire Cat to explore school leadership. This metaphor emerged from interviews with 11 Western Australian school leaders.

The crazy subterranean world of Wonderland—with its non-sense and word games—is actually a pretty good mirror to hold up to the world of education. The Cheshire Cat is a complex and mutable character, but is also highly deliberate in controlling its visibility and invisibility. It is the only character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that listens to Alice and helps her through a combination of listening, mentoring, travelling alongside her, a sense of humour, and sometimes stepping back to allow her to make her own decisions. It supports and trusts Alice. The use of this metaphor as emblematic of school leadership challenges traditional notions of leader as charismatic visionary hero leading the troops, or captain steering the ship. This leader is in control, but makes decisions from the perspective of what will have the best outcome or serve others (each student, staff, and the school community). The Cheshire Cat provides a creative reimagining of the school leader as someone who makes careful decisions about how to best serve their communities, how to foster trust, and how to distribute power and agency, including when to appear and disappear, when to step forward and step back, when to direct and when to empower.

The conclusion of my article reads:

It is important that … this article’s Cheshire Cat metaphor not become a new idealised version of leadership, a trope that perpetuates the dark shadow of leadership …. Rather, the Cheshire Cat can be a way into embracing and grappling with the complexities and nuances of leadership in schools. When the Cheshire Cat says to Alice, ‘we’re all mad here’ (Carroll [1865] 2014, 67), it reflects the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The notion of madness is resonant with the current topsy turvy land of education, in which the work of schools, school leaders, and teachers, is reduced to and driven by quantifiable data, measurable outcomes, and carefully monitored accountabilities (Ball 2016; Heffernan 2018b). When the Cat ‘explains the rules of the game, or rather the absence thereof’ (Nikolajeva 2009, 258) to Alice, it is akin to a Head of Department or senior leader helping their staff through the often absurd maze of judgement mechanisms operating in schools and education systems. The Cat can provide a frame for thinking about the slipperiness and complexity of the school leader’s work, the ways school leaders switch between ways of being and responding, and the tensions that school leaders constantly navigate.

… This article proposes a new way of thinking about the school leader through the unusual and lyrical metaphor of the Cheshire Cat. The inclusion of middle school leaders’ voices alongside executive school leader voices moves the conceptualisation of school leadership away from a focus on the principal and towards a more holistic view of leadership in schools. The stories of these leaders provide insights into school leaders’ perceptions of themselves as leaders, and their private processes of decision making. These leader stories, and the metaphor of the Cheshire Cat, challenge the notion of school leadership as an archetypal story of a central figure, showing that school leadership can instead be quiet, subtle, fluid, and even deliberately invisible. (Netolicky, 2018a, p.13)

References

Cody, R. (2019). Riding two wild horses: leading Australian schools in an era of
accountability. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Mattes in Education, 198- 203.

Gobby, B., Keddie, A., & Blackmore, J. (2018). Professionalism and competing responsibilities: moderating competitive performativity in school autonomy reform. Journal of Educational Administration and History50(3), 159-173.

Heffernan, A. (2018a). The influence of school context on school improvement policy enactment: An Australian case study. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1-12.

Heffernan, A. (2018b). The principal and school improvement: Theorising discourse, policy, and practice. Singapore: Springer.

Netolicky, D. M. (2018a). Redefining leadership in schools: the Cheshire Cat as unconventional metaphor. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 1-16.

Netolicky, D. M. (2018b). The visible-invisible school leader: Redefining heroism and offering alternate metaphors for educational leadership. In O. Efthimiou, S. T. Allison & Z. E. Franco (Eds.), Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

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.

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.

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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.