You meet them at the door. Come on in lads. Take a seat. Pens out.
We’re doing things differently today boys, you tell them. You know they’ve done LOADS of writing recently. You know they’re tired of extended writing. You can tell they’ve had enough of analysing quotations from the book they’ve been reading. The book they’ve been reading, which is perfect for them. Perfect for them because it is boy-friendly. Boy-friendly because it is full of action and features things that they’re interested in, like gangs, guns, and girls.
You put them in groups. You give them a whopping piece of A3, and felt tip pens fatter than a German sausage. “We’re having a competition”. Each group gets an extract from the book. You want them to come up with the best PEA paragraph1
The Writing World Cup
You make eight groups: perfect for a quarter-final scenario. At the end of the first round, you adjudicate. You put the best four through to the semis, with the four losers going into the “play offs”. You whittle four down to two. The class look on entranced as you hand over a couple of nightmare quotations for the Grand Final. One group of boys really raise their game. They produce a paragraph that is precise, perceptive, worthy of any prize. As the winners hold aloft their bumper box of Maltesers, you imagine being interviewed about the group’s victory:
Interviewer: The boys have done good Mark. How does it feel to have used their competitive natures to spur them on to such Olympian achievements?
Mr: I’m chuffed to bits Alan. They gave me 110%. I’m literally over the moon. This is probably the proudest moment of my managerial – sorry, I mean teaching – career so far…
How to teach boys (part 1)
Teaching boys is straightforward.
This is what I was told as a trainee teacher. There were solid strategies to follow. Top tips to implement. Sure fire ways of guaranteeing engagement in every single lesson. These strategies were logical. They were common sense. And boy, did they work for me.
Towards the end of my PGCE year, I found myself in a job interview, at the school where I did my second placement. An inner city comprehensive for boys in Manchester, it was located in an area of very high deprivation. The vast majority spoke English as an additional language. Well over half of the school received free school meals. A challenging school.
As you can imagine, most of the questions were about engagement and behaviour. To be honest, I found it relatively easy to answer these: all I needed to do was parrot back the advice I’d been given in university and explain how I’d adapted these strategies in my practice so far. I got the job. The school was the perfect fit for me. I understood boys because I grew up in a house with three brothers. Back in the day, I was even a boy myself. From the moment I leant over the desk to shake the hand of the interviewers, I knew that things were going to be fine.
And things were fine. I implemented my boy-friendly strategies and tested out my top tips. My lessons were popular. The Writing World Cup was just one example of the many boy-friendly engagement-guaranteeing lessons I knocked out.
My most memorable lessons
As an NQT2
, if a researcher, interested in what pedagogical approaches work best when teaching boys, had asked me to describe my best lesson, I’d probably have plumped for the Writing World Cup lesson.
Or maybe the one where I dressed up as a news reporter and started the lesson “in role”. Microphone in hand, my best American accent deployed, I described the scene of devastation as the Twin Towers fell. This lesson, spurred on by an Ofsted inspection that had downgraded my previously Outstanding teaching to Good, was intended to showcase the “wow factor” and “oomph” that the inspectorate had found lacking in my practice. I was teaching poetry – Simon Armitage’s “Out of the Blue” to be exact – and this was designed to introduce context but also tick the “creative, innovative” box that had suddenly appeared on the Outstanding lesson content descriptors.
Or possibly I’d have mentioned the lesson where we put paper helmets on and lobbed scrunched up balls of paper at each other, to get an idea about the conditions of trench warfare. Or the one where kids launched scrunched up balls of paper at me, containing questions for me to answer.
And if this same researcher had asked my pupils to recall the most memorable lesson I’d taught them, they’d probably say one of these.
Winning ways to engage boys
Funnily enough, the question about their most memorable lesson was asked of teachers and pupils by Michael Reichert, Ph.D. and Richard Hawley, Ph.D. – the writers of Reaching Boys Teaching Boys3
– in an effort to find the “most concrete and most useful data bearing on boys’ success in school”. Their research involved polling nearly a thousand teachers across 18 boys’ schools from countries which included the UK, United States, Australia, and South Africa. They asked teachers to describe a lesson “they consider especially effective with boys”. Amongst this array of educators, the authors found certain recurring themes. According to their teachers, the lessons that boys liked most included the following features:
The opportunity to get up out of their seats and move around
Students teaching each other
Games, role-play, or debates
Topics that are relevant to their lives
Surprising events or some other kind of novelty.
The boys – who were asked to recall a particularly memorable lesson – concurred with their teachers. Yes, they said, this is the kind of learning that we like.
What did these trends look like in reality, then? They looked like this sort of thing:
Mastering stage swordplay during a Romeo & Juliet module
Acting out the process of cell division
Dissecting squids during biology. Then using the ink to draw things with. Then turning these cephalopods into calamari. Science, art, and cooking in one lesson.
Now these lessons, just like my celebrated offerings, sound ideal for boys. They sound fun. They sound engaging. They certainly sound novel.
How to teach boys (part 2)
In 2014, I decided to do something radical. In search of a new challenge, I got myself a job at a mixed gender comprehensive. This capricious act meant I would now be teaching girls as well. It also meant relocating to Devon. The new school was in an affluent middle class area but had a significant intake from local villages that followed the region’s pattern of rural deprivation. The English results were below where they should be, given the entry data. Boys in particular were massively underperforming.
I was under no illusions that the main reason I’d been given the job was my reputation as the “boy guy”, the answer – no, the panacea – for the school’s boy-fuelled nightmares. The first year, I’d sort out English. The following year, I’d spread my magic fairy dust over the rest of the college. And the funny thing is, that’s what started to happen. The results for boys began to improve. Oddly though, they also did for girls. I put that down to girls being compliant. It was obvious that they’d just gone along with the boy stuff.
Towards the end of that first year in Devon, I wrote a blog – my first ever – on how to improve progress through boys’ engagement. And to bring things full circle, I was also asked to deliver more CPD4
sessions on – yes, you’ve guessed it – boys’ engagement. Things were going exactly as they should be. My strategies continued to bear fruit.
Not long after writing that first blog, I had an epiphany in the shower. My epiphanies always happen in the shower. Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. In fact, it wasn’t sudden; it had been niggling away in the back of my brain for a few months, including while I was writing my boys’ engagement blog.
What happened is I realised that all of my views on how to teach boys were actually garbage.
Well, not all of them. But a fair chunk. Especially the boys’ engagement strategies that had been the bedrock of my teaching practice.
What were these strategies then? And why were they such rubbish? Before I share with you what really works, let’s start by looking at three prevalent boys’ engagement myths, which are not just flawed but actually contribute to boys’ poor academic outcomes.
Engagement myth 1: boys like competition
The logic behind this boy-friendly strategy is simple: boys like competition, therefore, making activities competitive will make them more motivated to learn. It’s a no-brainer, right? Chuck in a few prizes, reward points, or even good old-fashioned bragging rights, and the most reluctant of lads will get stuck in. After all, male pride is at stake. For many years, this was fundamental to my quest for maximum engagement. My best lessons, including the legendary Writing World Cup, featured competitive elements. The resulting engagement, to my eyes, was evidence that boys were spurred on by a traditional battle for victory.
The reasoning behind this is logical, compelling and catastrophically wrong. Rather than encouraging boys on to greater efforts and achievements, this motivational tactic in many cases has the opposite effect, particularly for the very boys who are most in need of a boost to their confidence.
has argued that in Western cultures, “ability” is a “commodity” that has a widespread value and as such carries high status. In schools,
Covington contends, academic ability is prized above other abilities. The particular emphasis placed on “intellectual” ability has a profound impact on an individual’s self-worth. Put simply, the feelings we hold about our academic ability and the judgements others make about our academic ability directly affects our self-esteem. For Covington, there is nothing quite like a good set of grades to boost our self-worth levels. Conversely, there is nothing like a collection of Es and Fs glaring at us from a report sheet to obliterate our self-worth.
This seems rather obvious: success builds success. Of course pupils feel better when they get good grades. Of course they feel awful when they don’t. But where Covington’s argument gets really interesting is when he applies this self-evident knowledge to the competitive backdrop of our education system. In most countries, exams are set up in a manner that is inherently competitive. Unlike, say, a driving test – where if you meet a required standard you pass – many summative assessment regimes are organised and administered to ensure that only certain percentages can achieve a desired “pass” mark. Many thousands will “succeed”, many thousands more will not. Some people think this is a good thing, others feel that the bell curve is unfair.
Whatever your views of the rights and wrongs of the hierarchical nature of education outcomes, there are clear consequences for the self-worth of individual pupils. If you don’t believe me, next results day, try telling lachrymose Pupil X, who got a D, that their grade is just as much of an achievement as their mate Pupil Y, who got a B. You may well talk about different starting points, and how much progress Pupil X made over the course, but your rational words will provide no solace. Pupil X will still feel like a loser compared to Pupil Y.
Failure as a protection strategy
As we shall discover in Chapter 3
, male pupils are more likely to do less work through a desire to fit in with the peer group. But they also, according to Covington, withdraw from academic work as a “self-worth protection” strategy. This is a paradox that many experienced teachers will recognise: only by guar...