What I learned at the National Boys’ Education Conference

boy_tactileLast week I was fortunate enough to make the trip to The King’s School in North Parramatta and attend this biennial conference on boys’ education. I’ve been before and it was great and this year was no different. I would highly recommend it to all those who teach boys. This year’s theme was Head, Heart and Hands. It follows the 19thCentury pedagogue Pestalozzi who argued that children should be free to pursue their own interests. Education should be about developing the whole child, nothing new for teachers, especially those in Catholic schools, nonetheless it’s worth some reflection. A good education is rested on engaging the mind, having positive relationships and active learning.

headBaroness Susan Greenfield began proceedings and while I didn’t agree with all of her arguments I did think she made some interesting points. She spoke on how the digital world will change the way we think and learn – she refers to it as mind change. A very similar version of her presentation can be seen here.

The one thought that stands out in my mind from her presentation is when she showed an image of a hand holding a brain and questioned what if, while you were handling this brain, you got a little bit stuck under your finger nail? Would it be the bit that somebody loved with, or would it be a habit – the habit of biting your fingernails perhaps?! This really got me thinking about the how fragile yet how powerful the brain can be. In fact ‘Thinking is … movement confined to the brain’ and every time we think we make a shift from the sensory to the cognitive experience.

Dr Michael Kimmel, joined us from Frankfurt Germany to speak on “The Boy Crisis.” Here’s a few points he made that stuck with me:

  • Is there really a boys’ crisis?
  • Boys are made to be problems
  • Boys lib movement introduced the boy scouts movement
  • What benefits girls actually benefits boys
  • There is no empirical evidence that the sex of the teacher by itself makes any difference to boys or girls – in fact girls have done pretty well given the lack of female role models in many areas
  • We don’t tend to see gender when we talk about boys, we do see it when talking about girls. Why?
  • Boys don’t see gender as important to them as do the girls. Why?
  • We need to make gender visible to boys
  • Ideology of masculinity has 4 rules: 1. No sissy stuff, 2. Be a big wheel, 3. Be a sturdy oak, 4. Give’em hell (psychologist Robert Brannon)
  • Boys overestimate their abilities while girls tend to underestimate theirs
  • The small number of girls who do well bring up the score whereas the large number of boys who do poorly bring the score down – hence the gender gap
  • Girls tend to like English and Languages for the same reasons boys don’t
  • Single sex schools can perpetuate stereotypes
  • Let’s make a school ABOUT boys rather than ones of and for
  • “Boys will be boys” is male bashing! It assumes boys will be violent, rapacious, predatory animals
  • Boys’ schools can address these issues and start conversations  – we can do something about it.

“Is that a psychologist in your pocket?” was the title of Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg’s address. He took us on a rather heartinteresting journey through the idea of using the internet as a psychology triage. He tabled many aps and websites as an upside and positive use of the technology that has taken over our lives. He likens the smartphone to a Swiss Army knife. Here are a few resources he spoke about: 

Smiling Mind a modern meditation for young people

Cold Turkey for those distracted by social media

Let Panic Go by James Henry – self managing tool when panic attacks happen

Sleepbot  helps those sleep deprived teens manage sleep hygiene

Dr. Carr-Gregg also spoke of positive psychology and reminded us of two things:

  1. Even if you can’t change something you can always change the way you think about it
  2. See life as it is but go out of your way to focus on the good bits

handsThe final address was given by the Headmaster of the King’s School, Dr. Tim Hawkes. He based his presentation on ideas from his latest book “Blizzard Lines” a story set in two worlds. One is a suburban environment. It is a secure and comfortable community, but three photos, two sons and a fast car turn it into a dangerous place for some, and a death trap for others.

Dr. Hawkes has always believed that boys should be prepared for life not just exams. The Year 10 program, Boys to Men, at the King’s School does just that.

 I’ll be posting more information on the conference workshops and panel discussions I attended over the next couple of weeks so stay tuned or click on follow and be alerted to further posts via email.

Are boys’ brains different from girls’ brains?

Where would you stand on the following statements?

  • People react differently to girl and boy babies (agree/disagree)
  • One year olds don’t distinguish between boys’ and girls’ toys (agree/disagree)
  • Five year old girls play with both boys’ and girls’ toys alike (agree/disagree)
  • Environments bias boys’ and girls’ behaviour (agree/disagree)

This is an interesting scientific exploration by Lise Eliot of the differences between boys and girls that breaks down damaging gender stereotypes – Pink Brain Blue Brain

Click on photo below to view the video. You can watch the whole 40 min or jump to sections that interest you.

Pink brian blue brain







Teaching strategies that work for boys

boy_visualI believe that boys’ behaviour is linked to the way we teach. Good teaching will ultimately deliver good behaviour. Whenever you can, I encourage you to negotiate the curriculum with boys; make it about them. In fact I’m going to also say that whatever you do with the boys can only but benefit the girls as well.

You will be surprised at how closely the negotiation is with the actual curriculum you intended to deliver anyhow. Discuss assessment with them; come to an agreement which suits both the expectation of the course they are about to undertake and their needs. Give them choices on how they might like to present their learning. This gives them the opportunity to shine using their strengths. Create the environment in which they might come to understand more deeply the learning intended.

“Boys are impressed by what they see or feel more than what they hear.” Shea (1964) Use their own experiences and set up environments to engage them more deeply. Here are a few ideas from colleagues and from my own classes that work.

Power of One (Year 6 boys) Consider the strength of this introduction to South Africa and Apartheid: The teacher divides the room with a thick strip of white tape. Twenty-five boys occupy one-third of the room, two-thirds of the room, by only five. These five are the ‘chosen ones’. For a day the ‘chosen ones’ are given special privileges: they are treated to lollies, use the toilets closest to the classrooms, leave the room first, go to specialist classes before the oppressed twenty-five. The underprivileged ones are not to speak in class, can only play in a small grassed area, must use the toilets in the far end of the courtyard about 50-60 metres away and may only exit the room from the back door. The ‘chosen ones’ were given permission to throw their rubbish on the ground and simply by pointing, signal their wish for the underprivileged to pick it up. The 25 must obey.

This behaviour might seem harsh but the teacher assured me that they made it as difficult for this group as was possible without jeopardizing their safety. A number of parents called the school, not to complain, but to congratulate the teacher on his efforts in establishing the setting for the novel with such realism that their boys would not stop talking at home. The conversation in the classroom the next day was amazing.

“Was it fair?” the teacher asked.

“Certainly not!” The oppressed group responded.

“Yes” replied the ‘chosen ones’.

“Would you want to swap?”

“Yes!” came the roar from the 25.

“No!” said the ‘chosen ones’.

And on it went…a wonderful first hand experience of oppression and power.

boy_learning_geographyTropical Rainforests (Yr 8 boys) My daughter actually told me this story…but it’s great for boys. It is amazing what a couple of humidifiers and some tropical fruits to share can do to set the scene for a geography unit on tropical rainforests.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Ceiling (Yr 7 boys) It is always great to have boys imitate life, especially those of famous artists. It certainly gets their attention when one mentions their sexual orientation but getting them to lie under their tables armed with pencils, (not paints, mums tend to not like them having paint all over their uniforms!), and have some paper already attached to the bottom for them to draw on. I have since found that this is not accurate and that Michelangelo probably leaned backwards while standing to paint the Sistine Chapel, but it worked for a while, much taller desks might be invaluable for future sessions!!

Vincent Van Gogh (Yr 9 boys) Even 15 year olds enjoyed the introductory picture book story read to them from the teacher’s chair as they sat or lie on the ground. Their next task was to coordinate a human chronological timeline featuring the different episodes in the artists’ life and times. Then we moved to completing a mind map of what we had retained followed by a journey into cyber space. This was an excellent way to introduce the artist and his work and their literacy skills were advanced simply by using the words and simple phrases they had used to build their mind maps, the discussion and stories they had heard and then the interaction they had with the websites. Their essays were wonderfully personal and full on emotions. Needless to say they were very proud of their achievements and it wasn’t hard at all.

Italian Region’s Project (Yr 7 boys) Why not encourage the boys by setting up a travel unit, asking them to complete forms, interview them using your colleagues as the government officials. Boys tend to get quite motivated knowing that someone who does not teach them the language can actually understand them. Once successfully completing the interview, issue passports which act as the criteria sheets for all the different sections of the assessed tasks. The boys collect each assessment as they complete the tasks and return is anticipated with the final date stamp. It is a wonderful way to engage them and make them accountable for holding onto their passport. If they lose it the cycle begins again. We have yet to lose one!

The Dadaists (Yr 12 boys) The Year 12 History teacher invites the Year 11 Studio Arts class to discuss Dadaism with her class. What does one do apart from panic because this is your first year at the school and she has been there forever and probably knows a lot more about History than you do!

Answer: send her class outside while your class sets the scene. In one corner we have a couple with a dictionary, at the back another couple set up with easels and paint, some more cut newspaper headlines and throw them into a hat, another few are perched on top of the desk ready to make a stand, throw in a couple of harlequins and suits and the scene is set. Call in her class when you’re ready and ACTION!

I am always on the look out for more great ideas. Why not share some of yours with us? It can only benefit our boys after all.

Boys in schools

Just a few thoughts, (I’ve been reading up on boys’ education and it seems nothing has changed over the years…disappointingly I could probably, though I won’t, reuse all my work from 5 -10 years ago!) firstly, adapted from Martino, Kehler & Weaver-Hightower (2009):

  • girls are not to blame for boys’ underachievement in school
  • sitting boys next to girls in the hope that girls’ skills might rug off onto them is not the solution
  • it is a generalisation to say that boys don’t enjoy school
  • just because some boys enjoy school less than girls doesn’t mean all girls enjoy school
  • the widening achievement gap between boys and girls doesn’t mean boys are necessarily doing poorly, it could be girls are improving
  • boys’ behaviour may be described as poor BUT what impact is it having on the girls AND on boys whose behaviour is not poor?
  • behaviour – who owns it?
  • has the attention paid to girls’ education in the past come at the expense of boys?
  • Senn’s article EFFECTIVE APPROACHES TO MOTIVATE AND ENGAGE RELUCTANT BOYS IN LITERACY (2012) has some excellent points but it’s a similar message – boys are disinterested and we need to appeal to their sense of adventure. “The idea is not to ignore or pay less attention to the girls in our classrooms, but to broaden our thinking to include the specific needs of our boys and what they can achieve…” (p. 212)

So then what do we mean…the problem with boys? The problem is not just with boys, or with girls, I think the problem lies in the teaching and learning – not all of it BUT enough to suggest that we could do things better.