Friday, 16 December 2011

My latest blog for Guardian Teach

 
Just being a boy is the strongest predictor that you might struggle in school. How is the education system failing boys and what can be done?
 
There was some rather unhelpful research reported not long ago regarding the issue of summer birthdays – an analysis of results had found that children born in the summer term or (horror of horrors!) August were less likely to do well academically. Some friends with August-born children quizzed me on this – to the parents of girls I offered some support; "could be worse – she could be a boy".
 
Of course I jest. But being a boy is the strongest predictor that you might struggle at school. The GCSE results of 2011 displayed the largest gap ever in the discrepancy between the relatively shining results of girls and those belonging to boys. So what does all this mean? Well, it means the media declaring that "boys are failing'" but it means reflective teachers asking, "how are we failing them?"

My view is that what we ask of children doesn't always correspond with what they are naturally equipped to best do, and that this is most prominent when it comes to boys. Even in the holistic early years curriculum, the EYFS, there's strong reference to formal learning; indeed it has, amongst its aims, sentence writing by the end of F2 with attempts at punctuation. This sort of prescribed learning does not come naturally to many young children, and is particularly difficult for boys as it requires highly developed fine motor skills, as well as sitting still!

Young children need to be outdoors – playing in the elements, learning, exploring. I recently interviewed the owner of an Outdoor Nursery where the children are outside all of the time. When I asked her about whether she thinks this practise is particularly good for boys, she explained how in the outdoors gender is less pronounced, less noticeable, and she added, "All human babies are born needing to play - it's their natural drive. They want to explore the world around them, to find out how it works and how to control it.  The drive to play comes from within, it's very powerful, and is the same for boys and for girls."

As we move into the primary years, and typically there's more carpet time, more focussed work at desks, less free play time - the discrepancy between the girls and the boys in our classes becomes progressively apparent. But is this due to girls being more suited to our teaching methods, or is it their readiness to conform?

Girls are generally assumed to be more emotionally competent than boys and this adage is actually well-founded in evidence. At around four years of age, children acquire the ability to alter their emotional expression. They may feel hurt on the inside after a disagreement, but they smile and say it doesn't matter. Feeling one way and expressing something else is known as "display rules". You guessed it - girls are more adept at developing this skill. So as we praise the girls for sitting well, listening and looking interested, whilst their male peers are fiddling, chatting and wriggling, one has to ask whether the boys are just more transparent in their frustrations.

The last decade or so has also seen the focus in literacy on phonics teaching. I see the benefit of phonics each and every time my daughter reads to me. "Sh" "or" "t" – "short". Of course, I also see the limitations of phonics every time she reads to me as so few words are phonetic – but that's a whole other blog post! My point here is that phonics is useful but a resolutely formalised literacy focus; we can teach phonics, of course, but not instead of drenching the children in top quality stories (told from beginning to end, just story for story's sake) and enthusing both girls and boys to read, read, read!

So for those worried that if we focus on boys and their needs then it is at the detriment of our girls - fear not. Boy friendly practise is simply good teaching. Just because girls are happy to conform and comply, it doesn't mean it's what's best for them; it certainly isn't what they require most. It's a teacher's role to make learning playful, stimulating and exciting and ultimately accessible to all.

• Phoebe Doyle is a former primary teacher who now writes on education, parenting and health issues. She's a parent of two young children and blogs at www.tremendouslytwo.com and tweets at @tremendously2

1 comment:

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