Monday, May 04, 2009

Educating Boys...and girls?

Sometimes it seems easier to think about who succeeds at schools than who don't. All too often schooling does not suit boys. This is the thesis of a book, yet to be published, by Massey University Education Lecturer Michael Irwin. My blog is simply an edited extract published in the Sunday Times. It would seem to be a book well worth acquiring. Much of what the extract says reflects what those who have long believed important -an activity/inquiry arts based programme is the basis of productive learning. And such programmes would also suit girls by making them more adventurous? And it makes light of the Governments current push to focus even more on literacy and numeracy with their reactionary National Standards.!

'Boring! It is like a prison.Wish I could get out of here! says Matt a 13 year old boy in a secondary school.Matt, it seems was not finding much of relevance in what was being provided.

It is little wonder the school system fails to meet boy's needs, writes Michael Irwin, when it insists they learn the same way as girls.

Irwin has heard 5 year olds express similar sentiments. when Irwin researched boys perceptions the first word many boys said was "boring". This might refer to parts of the day or the whole process of learning.

Most boys, Irwin found, want to go to school but not to learn. They often just like playtime, or sports, or hanging out with friends. It seems that school and boys are out of sinc with each other.

The majority of boys look forward to starting school.They are enthusiastic about playing and learning things. The sad thing is that as they settle into school and move through their classes this enthusiasm wanes.

Many boys,Irwin says, are set for failure from day one. Boys begin school with literacy skills one or two years behind girls on average. In schools literacy is taught with lots of sitting and listening and teacher modelling of skills. Boys struggle to learn this way. Assisting with language development requires lots of opportunities for boys to talk as they create. Young boys learn best around activities where they can think, talk, explain and expand their vocabulary.They also need older boys or adults to assist with the role modeling of vocabulary and sentence structure, for example,building things at the woodwork bench and talking to an adult about what is happening.Boys need to be able to explain, discuss and have a sufficient oral vocabulary to communicate ideas and opinions fully before they are required to read and write.Pressure is being put on boys from parents and teachers to read and write before they are ready, and this pressure, Irwin believes, is one of the root causes for failure at school.

It sounds very much of the developmental periods and language experience learning of earlier days!

Schools can be hostile places for boys not achieving, those boys who don't fit, who are too noisy, active or argumentative. Schools have functioned the same way for many years - a group of teachers around one teacher.There may be more computers, more electronic gear, but children are still required to sit quietly for long periods of the day between four wails. Physical activity has been squeezed into narrow time slots, the arts often not taught at all, outdoor education restricted by processes and regulations. Boys who cannot function in this school environment are often allowed to drift or drop out, as long as they do not disturb the rest of the class.

This restrictive learning environment that Irwin writes about could be seen as the result of the push to have schools focus on achieving narrow achievement targets in literacy and numeracy since the changes of the 198Os! And greater restrictions will result when the Government introduces its National Standards this year!

Irwin continues that we have aways taught reading and writing in our schools but the greater emphasis of recant years has seen a larger block of the school day allocated to these areas to the detriment of science, the arts, social studies, physical education and the arts. Schools argue that if they spend more time on reading and writing the child will improve on these skills but Irwin strongly disagrees and I am with him.

Irwin argues that a good session of physical activity will improve a boy's concentration and attitude towards literacy than a longer spell with a book. Boys generally enjoy science, technology, and at east one aspect of the arts, whether it is music, drama or the visual arts.Educational studies have shown when boys experience success in one areas, such as science or art, there is a carry over effect into other areas of the curriculum. A boy excelling at science is also likely to want to read,even if it is only science literature. In Irwin's opinion this over emphasis on writing and reading is why some boys are underachieving and finding school boring.

Couldn't agree more.

Irwin also believes that boys are being exposed to reading and writing too early. Schools tend to think the earlier you start the sooner the student will acquire the skills. .This sets boys up for early failure when what they are requiring is early year success.Starting boys on literacy skills early does not mean they will learn faster, nor do it better.

Advances in brain research, he says, indicate that even though boys and girls develop along similar trajectories , a girls development in the language areas can be approximately two years ahead of a boys. Before you you can read you need the oral language and experience that are prerequisites to reading and writing. A lot of the make and do activities has gone from the infant and nursery classes and been replaced with sitting, listening and copying type activities.

He is so right about this.Before the word ( reading or writing) comes the experiences gained through the full use of children's senses!

Children form ideas about themselves early. Children know when they are in the bottom group, when they struggle or cannot compete a task. Struggling to read and write words before a boy is ready can result in early failure and a negative attitude towards literacy.

This is the collateral damage written about by Dewey over a 100 years ago.

Children need the opportunity to be actively involved in constructive play and have a very strong language base before being introduced in formal reading and writing. Starting these strategies will not harm boys.For example in Finland children do not start school until they are 7 but their education system produces students who are top in reading, mathematics and science in International tests.

In Finland reading and writing has been integrated strongly into other curriculum areas such as sciences, physical education, history and mathematics. This was also an approach common in creative classrooms in New Zealand before the changes of the 1980s and implicit in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum ( a curriculum being put at risk by the current political imposition of National Standards.)

Boys, Irwin writes, are being turned off subjects because of the amount of copying, reading, or writing involved. Science was a subject area strongly based on investigation and experimentation.Now there are fewer scientific experiments and more reading and writing.

Boys, Irwin writes, have a natural curiosity ( and I would add so do girls) they love science, they want to experiment and learn. The science being taught today is not so much about experiments, as theories, and it is turning boys off a subject they once enjoyed.

An engaged boy Irwin writes, is a boy learning. We need to challenge a boys thinking by questioning.Questions such as " Why do you think that?" " How do you know?" get the boy to justify.'"What do you think will happen?" questions get him to predict."How did that happen get him to to be able to explain and discuss in full sentences their thinking, solutions and explanations.

These strategies are equally applicable to girls.

Boys, Irwin writes, also enjoy explaining their ideas through pictures and diagrams. Pictures and design are great thinking tools for boys. Once again I would add also the girls.

Irwin concludes by saying that our schools have become too prescribed in their learning and have become very language-laden from top to bottom. He continues, principals and teachers are overburdened with language: too many meetings, reports, memos, and other requirements are taking our teachers away from the core business of teaching.

Language is overburdening the classroom and boys are drowning in blah blah, blah. Our prescription driven, language-laden education is stressing out many of our teachers and resulting in many of our boys failing.

Irwin's book, 'Educating Boys; Helping Kiwi Boys To Succeed At School', would be well worth a full read. And not just about boys education!


Mac Stevenson said...

How true Bruce. If you want proof of starting kids too early on Reading just look at who is in the Reading Recovery groups. Almost always boys, almost always Maori and PI boys. We reward their inability to read by shutting them in a little room for half an hour of one on one every day and then wonder why any gains made are rarely sustained.
Perhaps a half hour in the sand pit or in the activity corner would be best and lets look at Reading Recovery when they are 8 rather than 6.
Just a thought and one that will see me looked at askance by all Reading Recovery advocates no doubt.

TracyO said...

I agree it is about girls too. Too often I too see girls bored by school - so it's not just about the literacy. Why do these excited, questioning and keen little 5 year olds become bored, unenthusiastic 8 year olds...way too soon to be sick of the system. A lot of the 'fun' has disappeared I think - I still think back to my early days of teaching about 18 or so years ago - I still feel like a new teacher and nearly die when think it's been that long - anyway, I am off the subject - used to do daily PE, fitness, literacy , numeracy with art, social studies and science, drama and dance and I think did it all well - we still have same hours in the day....where does the day go ? We had the paper work then, I remember doing the tick boxes for every child in several areas of every subject....seemed more why can't we do it now ? I think our kids got a good deal then....what has changed ? Technology ??

An interesting point is that the European education systems mentioned have one of highest rates of literacy in world. I have been told that many of their programmes on TV are subtitled - hence their good reading levels. See the Availll programme via Canterbury area/Christchurch - which is based on movies and subtitles and the wonderful progress achieved by students after a 6 week block of this. Might not be so much to do with age taught to read - but exposure to text via TV ? Who knows...many variables. All interesting though and I agree, it might not be so much about educating boys - but just 'educating'.

TracyO said...

Mac Stevenson,
in reply to your reading recovery comment - true.
There was a SARR programme - Supporting as Risk Readers for 8 year olds and above, which was a lot more flexible than reading recovery - having trained in both, I feel that I can compare. Last year financial support was withdrawn from this initiative - so is no longer happening. I saw great benefits from this in terms of older students getting assistance they need and sustaining it. But it is no more....

Tom said...

Great comments people.
I am a boy and this blog is true. Even now as a principal I could justify staying in my office day in, day out and 'manage' our school.

This year I have allowed tackling and bullrush again. On my teaching day our day is themed - current theme is Spiders. The boys and girls love it.

We limit ourselves to one staff meeting a week and when there is an event such as parent teacher interviews we do not have a staff meeting that week.

Our catch phrase is - slowing the pace.

As for being over burdened with language ERO recommended that we update and rewrite most of our policies. It was a reasonable suggestion as the policies were in a sorry state but policy writing - now that's fun ?

Bruce Hammonds said...

Kia ora folks

This rushing kids into literacy and numeracy bi- passing lots of sensory experiences that develop naturally ideas, words and questions is just wrong.

And what Irwin writes about boys is equally applicable to girls who sometimes need to be more assertive.

And we did have better language experience develomental teaching in earlier days, which were more creative and more fun. Reading writing, maths, science , and art should grow out of the need to make and express personal meaning not be 'add ons' or 'fill ins'.

Great to know you are a boy Tom! You are right about all this recording requirements to measure , or provide 'evidence' - the best evidence are the aptitudes and attitudes of the students themselves.

Our current 'formulaic' education, and this obsessive emphasis on literacy and numeracy( the 'evil twins') is mis-educating too many students who leave without a decent sense of who they are, what they can do and lacking in a postive vision of their future.

And National Standards will just add to the problems.

Lets 'slow the pace', 'do fewer things well' , produce work of quality and creativity, and help children find themselves, their gifts and talents, in the process. A bit more trust and faith and a little less measuring everything.

Jody Hayes said...

I do agree with the too much 'literacy' if it is literacy in the narrowest sense of the word but not if it is about 'reading' art, 'reading' the natural world, 'reading' the opinions of others, 'reading' the instructions to create something (how to ...) or play a game, 'reading' angles etc to create a successful adventure playground ....
I could go on and on - literacy, in my opinion, is being able to draw on the right skill at the right time to solve problems and reflect on something to decide what your own opinion is.
I agree with immersion in motivating, interesting and integrated learning - that is how I like to learn myself. The acceptance that my interests won't be the same as others means I have to negotiate and finds points where commonality occurs and this is worthwhile learning too.

Neill O'Reilly said...

Great to see Michael putting his thought to paper. He was a principal at a small school north of Auckland and in the early 1990's I was his release teacher for one day a week while I was training to be a teacher. So nice to hear his ideas.
At the schools I have led over the last 5 years we have responded to this understanding regarding boys learning in a number of ways at our schools including the removal of all homework aside from some reading and basic facts. In its place we have offered n optional programme that is"doing" (making meals, doing jobs, camping, doing art, learning instruments, joining cubs/scouts, helping out in the community, doing the famine, doing tri athlons etc) with no pretty presentation necessary! In the schools that have implemented this concept (over 50 nationwide in NZ and growing by the week) some are achieving up to 90% uptake from their children- including boys!
At my current school we are working on a new concept (probably old really) of transition to school - a new entrant area with a major emphasis on play with purpose built water, sand and other play areas under large atrium that links the classes as part of the total classroom learning area. This is just the start -our NZCER engagement data is virtually the same as all NZ schools and it is shocking neary 50% of boys from Year 4 up identify school as "boring" despite the fact we are trying new ideas all the time- the answer? We have not tried the right ideas yet or our data would change! Anyway I have got Michaels book , other books worth a read include Guy Claxtons "What the point of school" and Alfie Kohn " Schools worth Fighting For".
Go Michael and go all you people out their who are trying other options. How about a science year? Forget the touch feely crap , the social studies and looking at things get them doing and then reflecting on their doing, ask probing questions, get away from neat and pretty- so over rated, get over spelling also over rated bring back fun to schools!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Jody

I agree with you about 'broadening and deepening' literacy but still that think most programmes need to be 'reframed' so as to contribute directly to the inquiry programme -and, most importantly, that the inquiry programme is what it is all about!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Neill

I have heard only good things about your homework ideas but for me the answer does not lie with homework but making activity/inquiry/ exploration and expression central to all learning.

A lot of schools are making use of a developmental activity programme called 'Discovery' ( Hutt Central School) for juniors to do exactly what you are saying.

I don't like the 'neat and pretty' bit because I strongly believe in the power of aesthetic design and 'personal best' ( 'doing fewer things well') but small point. Too much written work is boring and unfocused which turns boys off.

I am aware of the books you mention and have written lots of blogs about Claxton in particular.

Neill O'Reilly said...

I agree the home learning is just one piece of the puzzle (an important one as I believe it is one of the most powerful windows into learning in the 21C) and it is exciting to see and hear about schools making some brave choices to challenge the norms.

pollysparkles said...

Bruce, Re your comment 'I don't like the 'neat and pretty' bit because I strongly believe in the power of aesthetic design and 'personal best':
By ‘neat and pretty’ I understood Neill to mean when 'neat and pretty' is as the object or goal of the action. I think he would agree with the’ power of aesthetic design’ and the ‘concept of personal best’ in the pursuit of quality learning that engages and respects hearts and minds.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Fair enough Polly

Neill O'Reilly said...

Thanks Polly
Over the years far to much "credit" has been given to or attributed to "neat and tidy" work. The quality of the learning is often secondary. A perfect example is writing. When teachers cannot see beyond the neatness of a piece and the surface features the teaching (and learning) stops. Other examples include title pages (and yes people till do have these as a regular part of the classroom programme- makes great homework!) , projects, posters...
We as adults rarely concern ourselves with the neatness of our planning, ideas, notes, calculations etc yet it is one of the primary areas of focus for school teachers.
Often if boys are asked to do a title page or a project, poster etc unless they are given specifics about design, layout and share in the development of the success criteria they will do the bare minimum- and why not they often see such little value in the "project" (etc) that it is just meeting requirements.

TracyO said...

The latest 'horror' I heard last night from my year 10 daughter re; her science class at high school. "Our science teacher is soo boring, all we do is copy off the board or copy out of a text book, what a waste of time and it's so boring, I don't even bother to read what I am copying it's so lame". This is so sad and makes me so cross, feel like running down then like a wild banshee screaming .... can't believe there are still teachers out there doing this sort of thing and unfortunately I feel at a high school they are 'unapproachable' and 'beyond question'. Being a bit of a science enthuasiast myself in my teaching, this sort of stuff makes me so mad. This is a Year 10 girl talking - so I imagine many of the others boys & girls feel exactly the same !
It's a crime against young eager minds.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Tracyo.

What you year 10 daughter says is sad but all too often true. A real shame as science ought to be a discovery and experimental subject with pertinent notes taken as an integral part of the process. It is a crime against young minds as you say to sit , listen and copy.

Hi Neil

If writing all all surface feature and pretty decoration with no sense of self, depth of thought, or personal insight I am on your side. But somehow we are getting distracted.

I have been to three schools today and at all I have seen boys happily involved in a range of fun learning activities producing their work with a due sense of respect for their own ideas.

Maybe it is different in other parts of the country? If boys are doing the bare minimum then maybe they haven't seen the point of it.

I think we have to differentiate between surface neatness and depth of thought well presented for a real audiance. Boys, in my experience, see the real 'power' in this. I have tradesmen working on my house at the moment and they all believe in doing the job to the best of their ability - and I want them to do a 'neat' job.

In student centred learning environments this 'boy thing' is not an issue but we could go on forever...

Neill O'Reilly said...

I am excited about seeing boys and girls involved in authentic learning in rich tasks that really challenge them, when they do they are very concerned with how they "present" their information. This is the critical difference neat and tidy because I have a reason for what I am communicating and because I believe it could make a difference or neat and tidy because the teacher told me to!
We will find many examples of both around Aotearoa!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Fully agree - the only real learning is meaningful learning that makes sense to the learner. Not enough real learning - sparked by individual students curiosity- goes on in our schools as teachers follow boring 'best practice' teaching.

TracyO said...

If only there was some 'best practice' teaching happening ! Saying "boring best practice" means it isn't 'best practice' - does it ? Not in my books !

Bruce Hammonds said...

Imposed 'best practice' can be a bit boring - or if you like overly predictable. Once consistency is in place then is the time for individual teacher and student creativity.

michelle said...

hello there, i have just happened upon this page while desperately trying to find info on how to help my 9 yr old boy at school. After reading the exert about educating boys i beleive they are writing about my son!.Unlike some boys he was very fluent in reading and writing when starting school but has just gone down hill since. he works wonderfully when intersted and engaged but sitting still, writing etc just doesnt work. the school i feel now is just giving up on him he is not naughty not melicious just finds really hard to focus and easily distracted, im trying to work with them however i think im just coming across as a annoying mother. What other options for schooling do we have? he needs to learn by doing! he is very artistic and just a boy!. have looked at discovery 1 school does this work well for boys? any help greatly appreciated i dont want everyone giving up on him.

Anonymous said...

With regards to the 'neat and pretty' comments. I am teaching year 3 boys and I would like to know if "Boys Best Practice" advocates that boys should only use lead pencil for underlining, ruling off , filling in nouns, verb, etc into sentences and not use colour in their work. Also that there is no need to illustrate work. I am finding this concept a little difficult to deal with after teaching in a girl's school for many years where the use of colour is encouraged!Especially as the use of colour can enhance learning. Do boys not need colour in their lives? Is there research to substantiate this "no colour best practice"??

Bruce Hammonds said...

Such 'best practice' is nonsense - some boys ( and girls) like the aesthetic element in learning - lot of boys love visual designing. Most taggers are boys - and developers of graphic web pages etc.