Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools

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Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools

Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools

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What we do know is that for some boys, public praise is not welcomed, because being praised publicly, in front of other boys, could damage their valuable masculine status. One of the most powerful features of the book is the inclusion by the authors of various reflections on the effects of gender stereotyping on their own school experiences, as students and teachers. Pinkett’s descriptions of his difficulties fitting in at university and Roberts’ stories of his own response to subtle secondary school peer-pressure are moving and recognisable, lending passionate credence to the sections of the book which report key findings from research too. The authors were similarly honest in their interview for this great episode of the TES English podcast as well. It’s refreshing that both are truly walking the walk here, standing as great role models of the kind of masculinity they want to advocate. We often hear teachers saying that boys respond well to praise. Actually, this isn’t always the case. Teachers are confronted with proof of our own negative bias against boys - “a simple tally of comments revealed 54 positive comments about girls compared with 22 negative […] 32 positive comments about boys compared with 54 negative comments” - alongside our prejudice against children from low-income families: “It’s us we need to focus on”, because with hard-to-reach families “perseverance - not prejudice - gets results”. And those results might include, but not be restricted to, the narrow criteria of attending Russell Group universities. As a reader, it’s a scary moment when it dawns that these strategies were doing more harm than good. The World Cup of Writing created more losers than winners. The sports text reinforced stereotypes of masculinity and prevented students from building cultural capital. In one colleague’s maths lesson, the boys remembered far more about pizza toppings than the formula for calculating the area of a circle.

I was teaching poetry to a low set year 9 class, many of whom had previously expressed very negative ideas about the police, often in reference to their own dealings with them at the weekend. As a department we had already selected a collection of ‘disturbed voices’ poetry, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to engage some key boys in the year. In this lesson, I decided to get students to respond to Armitage’s ‘Hitcher’ in the form of a police interview. I asked their opinions and they helped me rephrase the writing frame to make it ‘more realistic’. As I had hoped, the boys showed interest and produced more writing than they often did. Yet, clearly I was guilty of the becoming a ‘cultural accomplice’, merely reinforcing the idea that they, as disadvantaged boys, were natural ‘troublemakers’, certainly not analytical thinkers or, god-forbid, the kind of students who might actually like poetry. The inspector, incidentally, told me that the task was excellently engaging, but clearly judged the students for their in depth knowledge of police procedures. Boys Don’t Try is also devoted to improving boys’ social and emotional wellbeing, arguing that much low achievement in boys is rooted in social and cultural contexts. Stephanie Keenan is head of English at Ruislip High School. She blogs here and tweets @HeadofEnglish Myths abound: engage boys by introducing a competitive element to your lessons; engage boys by using technology; engage boys by choosing topics that are relevant to their own lives… the list goes on.He is a strong believer in the school’s role in adding to a student’s “cultural capital” – the idea that we accumulate certain knowledge valued in society that gives us cultural competence and determines our social status. As an English teacher and a feminist, I like to think that I’m quite attuned to the ways in which language reveals certain social assumptions. I’ve spent hours patiently discussing the problems with language like “That’s so gay” and questioning the nature of ‘banter’ with frustrated students who didn’t see the problem. Yet, just in this blog, I’ve used phrases like “challenging boys” and described a low set without mentioning the gender divide, assuming the unequal gender divide of bottom sets to be implicit. As a new HOD, I have tried to ensure that we teach some non-stereotypical texts, but unlike Pinkett, I don’t currently make an effort to use homonormative pronouns in the classroom. I can imagine the way that my classes might respond to his example “Why might a man write his boyfriend a sonnet?” and have been somewhat unwilling to disrupt learning in this way. Although I regularly have the kind of “Why do we assume his love is a woman?” conversations about literature, I definitely haven’t yet normalised the ‘no song and dance’ approach that Pinkett advocates. Competition is questioned through the fear it can also engender: “If I don’t try, then I can’t fail,”“If I write nothing, then I’ve written nothing wrong.” This book is easy to read, but hard to listen to. I’m reassured by the solutions, but frustrated by all the mistakes we’ve been making for so long. Never try to ‘out-man’ the boys. Using your increased physical size or shouting to beat down bad behaviour is never going to work. Instead, when reprimanding a boy, avoid invading their personal space and remain calm and polite as you demand their compliance.

Chapter 4: Mental Health– Another thought-provoking listen with chilling statistics. Pleased to know that a number of the recommended strategies are already in place in my setting. Appreciated the mention of teacher modelling openly talking about their emotions and shoulder-shoulder talks, which made me think of a Pivotal podcast that I listened to in my first year of teaching and has stayed with me since..

Learning in a home and school environment where the benefit of academic work is encouraged and a work ethic is valued gives students the confidence that comes with the expectation to do better; to achieve.

This section for example, where Connell reflects on the behaviour of his male friend at school immediately reinforced the research on male relationships referenced in ‘Boys Don’t Try’: Exploring gender differences in education forms akey part of the specification Iteach in ALevel Sociology, in particular looking at explanations for gender differences in attainment. It is well documented that boys underperform at all stages of primary and secondary education in comparison to girls, and in Sociology we explore possible sociological explanations for these differences. It is an area of Sociology that Iam particularly passionate about and the insights that students provide when we discuss this topic are endlessly fascinating! Our book, Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools was born out of a response to the snake-oil solutions to raising male achievement that proliferate much of the discourse around boys and their relative academic underachievement in comparison to girls.If we can encourage boys to really value formal education, help them see it for themselves, it goes a long way to helping them to meaningfully engage and embrace it.” In her research on why girls “do better” than boys, Smyth found unconscious gender stereotyping may play a role. Boys (and girls) have more respect for teachers who know their stuff. Being an expert in your subject (or subjects) is a must.

Chapter 5: Expectations– Unsurprisingly, I’ve now decided I need to buy a physical copy of this book. I also need to read up on Mary Myatt’s work highlighting changing the language from “ability” to “attainment”. I found the whole mixed ability over setting section really interesting. As highlighted earlier, I would love to find out about secondaries that are making this work as I use this mixed ability approach in my primary class. (If you know of any secondaries that use a mixed ability approach – please let me know!) We are forced to reflect on our own practice to see just how much we are doing that might be just as damaging. In their new book, Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, teachers Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts examine the research and drill down to a core conclusion: boys are not hitting their heights because of a fear of failure. Similarly, the author makes a cogent argument for not making all boys’ learning “relevant”. First, he refers to cognitive social scientist Daniel T Willingham’s example of how content doesn’t always drive interest. For instance, we’ve all attended an event or lecture we thought would be boring but ended up being fascinating.To the fragile, male, adolescent, mindset, trying hard and still failing is the worst of both worlds. Research suggests boys are more likely than girls to self-sabotage their academic outcomes in an effort to protect their sense of self-esteem.” Research shows that boys are very competitive, care about the result of a competition more than girls, and they strive to be part of the “high ability” club. Roberts argues this hyper-competitive spirit breeds a self-destructive behaviour in boys that results in them “downing” the textbooks to protect their self-esteem: “If I haven’t tried, I haven’t really failed,” is the thinking behind this. As aresult of this attainment gap, schools up and down the country have invested time and money in training aimed at raising boys’ attainment. Indeed, Ihave sat through anumber of well-intentioned staff INSET sessions during my many years as ateacher, where Ihave been told that boys and girls learn differently, that boys thrive in acompetitive environment and that Ishould consider ways to make my subject more ​ ‘boy-friendly’. However, simply looking around my classroom at the wonderfully different characters Ihad in front of me suggested these solutions were not really solutions at all: boys are not all the same. There’s a danger of treating boys differently and patronising them, says Roberts. “So, for example, you’ve got a boy you think doesn’t like reading, so you decide to pander to his love of football and give him a book about that to read. But in narrowing your expectations, you’re narrowing his. It’s the same with, for example, teaching boys about Shakespeare by concentrating on the sword fights or the fighting: it’s like we’re hoodwinking them into learning, and it doesn’t work. What we need is a big shift in ethos: too many teachers believe boys can do less, they don’t think boys can succeed as well as girls at school. I don’t think it’s about watering it down: it’s about having high expectations for boys as well as for girls.” What about the boys?’ is a common refrain in education circles when discussing academic achievement, particularly in English.



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