Boys will learn like boys

Issue: Volume 94, Number 1

Posted: 26 January 2015
Reference #: 1H9cpf

A group of North Shore schools, in refusing to accept a small number of boys’ challenging behaviour as ‘the way of the world’, has become an example of how sector-wide partnerships can be powerful in bringing about positive change.

'Boys will be boys’ – in days gone by, the expression was normally followed by an exasperated sigh of resignation at the propensity of young men for unruly exuberance; an acceptance of challenging behaviour.

In today’s educational environment, an update is in order: ‘Boys will learn like boys’. There is now plenty of evidence to support the idea that different strategies get the best out of boys and girls, particularly where engagement is concerned.

As all teachers know, disengagement can lead to problematic behaviour, which can in turn require the involvement of the Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) service.

Nationally, the average rate of referral to the RTLB service is weighted heavily toward boys. Unwilling to accept this statistic as simply the way of the world, RTLB practitioners within the North Shore region cluster decided that the issue was one of engagement; therefore an issue that can be targeted.

Testament to the inherent strengths of the cluster paradigm, commonalities across schools within the North Shore region became glaringly apparent, says Dianne Walker, RTLB practitioner, and facilitator of the North Shore project.

“Across the cluster, between schools, teachers and RTLB’s, we identified that referrals were higher for boys. But secondly, when these pre-referral discussions were happening, we could hear that there were groups of boys with ‘like’ needs.

“From these discussions, in recognition of the fact that these groups of boys were having similar challenges, we began saying ‘how about if we pulled groups of boys together from our schools, rather than just dealing with one case at a time.’ We thought that we could then conduct group interventions to see if we could raise boys’ learning using different approaches, tailored to each school.”

Dianne and her team approached schools asking if they would like to participate in a cluster-wide series of group intervention projects. The response was enthusiastic, and it soon became obvious that challenges among most schools fell broadly into two categories: engagement and literacy, particularly writing.

With the intention of seeking expert academic guidance and expertise, Dianne and her colleagues approached Doctor Michael Irwin, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Institute of Education. This was a natural choice, says Dianne, given Dr Irwin’s well-respected research work on young male education and social behaviours, and his work investigating what motivates boys to write.

Dr Irwin says that the first step was to get everyone involved in this partnership together to begin discussing ideas.

“We started with a day conference in which I was a key note speaker, and all the participating teachers attended, along with their RTLB liaisons.

“The purpose of the conference was to explore strategies that schools could then take back and implement. The point was certainly not to tell schools, ‘this is what we want you to do’; we tried to explore what particularly a teacher was worried about, and how we could best do something about it.

“We looked at research evidence in terms of boys’ academic performance, including studies from the U.K. and Australia, and others around the world.”

Existing evidence

The Australian study that Dr Irwin mentions pursued the approach of identifying schools where boys were achieving above the national average, and examining what they were doing differently. School networks, similar to New Zealand’s cluster system, were then formed around these successful schools, with the intention of sharing strategies. One conclusion that came out of both the Australian and U.K. study was that the simple expedient of collaboration among schools, support resources (such as the RTLB service), and academic institutions encourages the best results.

The same studies have also identified creative and innovative teaching practice as a major factor in literacy and engagement success among young boys, coupled with supportive leadership.

All these ideas and existing evidence and strategies were discussed at the North Shore cluster conference; during this and a series of subsequent meetings among all participants, schools, teachers and RTLB practitioners, schools decided in consultation with Dr Irwin which strategies might be best suited to addressing their individual situations about boys’ learning and engagement.

Dr Irwin stresses that the entire cluster, everyone involved in the project, were careful to frame their efforts away from a focus on discipline.

“It’s important not to approach this as ‘we’re dealing with naughty boys here,’ even though obviously the statistics show that boys spend a lot more time being disciplined. We looked at it from the point of view that these boys are disengaged, but that they can learn: how are we going to re-engage them?”

Gathering data

Deb Wastney and Peter Stoner both teach at Mairangi Bay School, one of the five schools that are involved in the second year of the North Shore intervention project. After establishing that the school’s prime concern was the literacy gap between boys and girls – particularly in writing – the pair, along with their RTLB support staff, set about gathering data and establishing the degree to which – and reasons why – boys were falling behind. The three main methods of gathering qualitative data across most of the individual cluster projects have been surveys, observation, and interviews, as Deb elaborates.

“The main focus [of our initial research] has been to study what motivates boys to write, which is what Dr Irwin has been investigating. We decided to select a cohort of boys who weren’t necessarily well below expected achievement level; not the students who required lots of assistance to get them writing at year 6 level, but those who were just a bit reluctant in class and hard to motivate.

“We also selected two students who were a little bit more positive about writing to serve as a control in our research.

“We began by conducting an attitude survey, where we attempted to get a handle on their true feelings about writing, what particular parts of writing they found difficult.

“One of the big things to come out of this initial survey was that the boys found it really difficult to come up with ideas. Many of them struggled with being told what to write about, they expressed a desire to come up with ideas and starters themselves; basically they wanted to write about things they found stimulating, not necessarily what the class was doing as a group.

“Another concern was spelling. Many found it hard to spell words correctly, and for that reason among others, they didn’t see themselves as good writers. Therefore writing was boring to them.”

Peter adds:

“These were the boys who sort of switched off consistently, over a long period of time. Writing was a chore to these boys. It was something they had to do, not something they wanted to do: they’d made the decision that they weren’t any good at writing, and that it wasn’t for them, and that was it. They didn’t really value what writing was really about.”

From the sports field to the classroom

RTLB North Shore practice leader Jill Paige saw many quite different but equally exciting projects unfold across the five schools. When asked to talk about a project that stands out in her mind, she points to one undertaken by one school in the cluster.

The cohort of boys that were selected were all drawn from a whānau class, in which the boys exhibited exemplary behaviour, which Jill suggests can be attributed to tight, well-understood parameters and the mana carried by the staff working with the group.

However, outside the whānau class, the boys tended to be disruptive, disengaged and non-participatory. Jill says teachers and RTLB staff, again with the guidance of Dr Irwin, arrived at a strategy that attempted to transfer values to the classroom from a sphere the boys understood intuitively: the sporting field.

“This particular target group of boys were very good at sport. So we decided to use the sporting analogy of leadership, what that means, and how we can transfer that into the classroom setting. That was the broad thinking, but obviously it needed scaffolding for the kids. For example, we examined the value of trust on the sports field: what does it look like? Well, some of the boys said things like, ‘I’m a forward, and I have to be able to trust the backs.’ We were able to discuss the fact that trust is different for each member of a team.

“We then asked them to reflect on what trust might mean in the classroom. One answer was ‘the teacher trusts me to take the keys and open up the P.E shed, If I muck around on the way, then I’m betraying the trust.’

“It was about taking those things that they really valued in one context, and applying them to another.”

Overall project facilitator Dianne Walker also finds much to be both fascinated and inspired by in the intermediate intervention story.

“These boys simply didn’t previously equate their conduct in the classroom with the values they displayed on the sports field, they didn’t see any connection, and therefore didn’t feel any responsibility to uphold those values in the classroom.”

Dr Irwin also feels that the approach taken by the intermediate will make for compelling and influential research when the mammoth job of collating and distilling the whole project is finally completed, a daunting task that he and others are now applying themselves to.

“For the sporting values study, we identified a group of intermediate-age boys who were mad-keen on rugby league, and they played amongst themselves on the sports field fantastically well. But in class, this same group would always be niggling at each other, putting each other down, and not engaging.

“We looked at and talked about what made this group a good team on the sports field, what were the things that helped them achieve on the sports field. We talked about words like trust, focus, encouragement, and team-work, which they all could identify as the way to success in sport.

“In many cases, these boys couldn’t understand where, for example, trust might come into play in the classroom. They couldn’t see that when the teacher asks them to do something, they are being trusted, like a captain trusts another player. What we did was not only to discuss these concepts, but to identify instances when these sporting values were applicable in the classroom.

“One of the neat things that is now happening at the end of this project, is that [the boys are] starting to recognise that each of them has different skills, which they of course understand on the sports field: one boy might be better at goal kicking, another is faster than most. We encouraged them to think about classroom learning in the same way. ‘He’s better at doing maths than me, so I’ll go and have a talk with him about this thing that I’m finding tough’, and that sort of thing.”

‘How do we switch these boys on?’

Having identified clearly that Deb and Peter’s Mairangi Bay group struggled to engage with writing in part because they found it difficult to get their imaginations into top gear when handed a story starter, they asked themselves ‘so how do we switch these boys on?’ Between Dr Irwin, Peter and Deb, and their RTLB facilitator, lots of ideas were discussed. The first priority, they decided, was to initially put aside volume, and simply get the boys thinking.

Narrative writing was the obvious choice of style to get creative juices flowing. This also meant freedom of choice for the boys; but this was no free-for-all, says Deb.

“They had to go through the planning process. It wasn’t just ‘jump in and write’, it was about planning what was going to happen in the story, who the characters were. We did a lot of work too around descriptive language and brainstorming.”

The importance of sharing

For Peter, key to moving the boys toward a new enthusiasm for writing was in drawing out the confidence to share, and to believe in their own ideas.

“One of the things we noticed about the group was that none of them wanted to share their work. Lots were saying things like, ‘no, he can go first,’ or ‘no, I don’t want to share, mine’s dumb’ and that sort of thing.

“As soon as they started to get some affirmation of their work, some of their really good ideas, they realised that they actually had something valuable to input. Before we knew it, they were all fighting over who was going to share their work first! That was a huge transition for the boys, and for us.

“I think from that point, the boys realised that they did in fact have ideas, and that’s one of the big things that writing is all about.”

Writing isn’t spelling, and handwriting is handwriting

Deb and Peter’s initial research into what obstacles the boys thought blocked their writing shone a light on the fact that many were intimidated by an expectation that their lack of proficiency in the ‘other stuff’ – like handwriting and spelling – meant that they were no good at writing. Those running the project found that the use of technology segued rather nicely into the project, both as a means to motivate young minds fascinated by gadgets, and to de-emphasise the stuff that wasn’t the story, says Peter.

“Another motivator I think for the boys was that they did all their writing on Google Chromebooks, so that was important - the boys really looked forward to being able to use these gadgets. The technology allowed the boys to collaborate to a degree as well.

“That also removed the expectation the boys told us they had felt in the past that their writing had to be neat and tidy, and again, once they realised that writing isn’t about legibility of handwriting, that added to their confidence. They realised that handwriting doesn’t necessarily make a good writer. Yes, it’s always nice to be able to read someone else’s handwriting, but the Chromebooks took away an extra pressure.

“The other thing of course was that they were able to access their work at home and work on their stories.”

Anecdotal outcomes – more to come

Dr. Irwin reports that there will be a significant body of academic output that will eventually come out of this initiative. He is already hidden from sight at his desk behind mountains of collated evidence, both qualitative and quantitative. While he sifts through the data and the questionnaire results however, all involved are unequivocal in their conviction that the project was a worthwhile and extremely effective endeavour that is already bearing fruit in the classroom: heightened engagement is the most immediately obvious result, and all are excited at the prospect of seeing these impressions borne out by evidence of positive change, says Dianne.

“A couple of the projects used technology to not only engage boys in writing, but also to increase writing output. These projects achieved some quite wonderful results; we saw a really big change in engagement especially by the end of the projects. Teachers are now noticing that not only has the targeted students’ engagement in writing increased, but their entire involvement in the class and their oral participation has increased too.”

Jill agrees, saying that all teachers and RTLBs involved have come away with a keener understanding of how to get boys participating with enthusiasm – and therefore achieving.

“That was a big thing across all the projects: if these boys are motivated, then they’re going to participate, and if they participate then they’re far more likely to learn. That was a real plus.”

Peter and Deb at Mairangi Bay found themselves confronted with disappointed young faces when their project wrapped up, such was the enthusiasm of their group to continue their little writing team.

“Dr Irwin made a presentation to the boys, reinforcing once again that things like spelling don’t get in the way of good ideas. He also gave them a special notebook and pencil, explaining that he carries these around himself and jots down ideas whenever they come into his head. The boys thought this was just like Christmas really.

“This group went from being very disengaged in class, to ‘Miss Wastney, why haven’t we had writers group today?’ When that started happening, we realised that something had changed for the better.

To return to our original point – that boys will be boys, and will learn like boys – Peter tells of a day in writing group that has stayed with him, and illustrates perfectly that the key to unlocking engagement is ownership, confidence, and self-direction.

“One example that stands out in my mind was a session when one of the boys, who tended to be among the most demanding of teacher attention, just yelled out into the ether: ‘Is it ok [in my story] to tell the baby to shut up?!’

“My answer was, ‘well, does it add to the story? Does it add to the characterisation? If it does, then sure. If not, then don’t.’ Lauren’s feedback was that this was a good response, because it put the authorship onus on the student, rather than the teacher saying ‘no, you can’t tell a baby to shut up!’ The point is that the student is empowered with making the right decision for their story, for their character, rather than – as boys may have a tendency to sometimes do! – putting a shocking statement in their story just to see what the teacher will do.”

Success for boys - Teaching and learning resources

To support boys’ literacy achievement, the Ministry of Education has released new teaching and learning resources specifically designed to engage boys, get them excited about learning, and help them achieve to their full potential. Access these teaching resources online(external link)

Check out the Success for Boys website(external link) for lots of other helpful information about teaching and learning for boys.

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:06 am, 26 January 2015

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