Teaching is full of perennials. Just like the irises in my back garden they dutifully arrive every year come what may, blooming for all their worth and giving us that secure, fuzzy feeling that there are some things we can always rely on.
Like data showing that our boys are performing less well than our girls.
The gender gap, unlike my lovely irises, is one of many teaching perennials that we would rather stopped reappearing.
This year, rather than wringing my hands and sharing weary truisms with my fellow educational gardeners, I decided, together with the rest of the teaching and learning team at Durrington, to investigate further. The stimulus data was a Y10 tracking point, one of four that we have for Y10 this year. The data showed a fairly stark gap in attainment between our girls and our boys. Granted the KS2 data revealed a similar gap, but as that may in essence reveal that our primary colleagues may have encountered similar problems to us in getting the very best from our male students, the gap still felt like one worth probing.
It is not the first time we have made an effort to tackle this most thorny of issues, and as detailed in Shaun Allison’s blog about lazy boys we had previously collected the thoughts of our staff who have a track record of getting the most from our most reluctant male students. This provided many common sense approaches that had worked for these staff in getting the results we all wanted from this group.
However, what I was after was some hard evidence and a strong steer as to what might work best with teaching boys. Here, I found, was my first mistake. Unwittingly I was characterising the boys in Y10 as somehow different from girls and in need of a separate approach if we were to get the best out of them. As I delved into the research I found the reassuring and distinguished voice of Tim Oates saying much the opposite. In this summary of a keynote speech that he gave, Mr Oates suggests that the idea of formulating separate strategies in order to be successful with boys is a flawed one, in fact he says it is “absolutely wrong”. In essence he says we should find the best teaching strategies and they should be applied to all, regardless of gender. As a result we should be wary of the “it’s important boys get the chance to verbalise their thoughts” type of approach. By adopting this sort of strategy, we are lowering our expectations of our young men and accepting that they will not work as studiously as their female counterparts on tasks such as extended writing.
As often happens research evidence doesn’t give us the easy answers we may hope for. What it does do often, is get us thinking. The most interesting journal article I came across was this one here by Debra Myhill and Susan Jones. The research is fairly small scale and explores student responses to a single question regarding student perception of whether their teachers treat boys and girls the same. What comes across is teachers seem to bring substantial gender bias into the classroom with them, and that may be a large contributing factor to creating the gender divide in education. Now we all like to think of ourselves as above such obvious and seemingly illiberal tendencies. However, stop and think about how you question, how you give feedback, how you discipline. Could you honestly say you do not apply a gender specific approach in any of your strategies? It certainly brought me up short and made me realise the extent to which my own deeply ingrained biases influenced my own classroom.
With this article and Tim Oates’ words ringing in my ears I took to the corridors and conducted, with colleagues, between 20 and 30 observations with a single focus on gender difference. Were boys and girls taught differently? Did they behave differently? The results were very interesting. As with most single focus observations you suddenly start seeing what was always there. The answer was yes, there was substantial difference both in terms of the approach of staff towards male students and the manner in which boys behaved. The results are summarised below, based around our 6 teaching principles:
The results were shared this week with our curriculum and company leaders to take back to their departments and discuss at Subject Planning & Development Sessions. As you will notice we were not giving the answers, but rather observations and questions. A real mistake here would be to suddenly issue edicts that all staff must question boys and girls differently based on what we have seen. What we wish to see is an equity of treatment of both genders and most importantly the same expectations being applied to all. As far as possible we want a gender neutral approach, use what we know works and don’t accept sub-standard work as a genetic inevitability. Most importantly perhaps, we want our staff to think about how they might be bringing gender bias into their classrooms and consider how they might be, perhaps unconsciously, changing their approach or expectations based on gender.
Next week we also discuss the Myhill and Jones article at journal club, a voluntary staff forum for a bit of open discussion based around some research.
The problem here is clearly bigger than Durrington’s Y10 students and is influenced by so many variables that to comment on cause is far beyond my knowledge or capabilities. The aim here is more to deal with what is in front of us. We are trying to connect the dots between data, research, our school context and some intuition, while all the time looking to avoid giving hastily concocted solutions and stick to our principles. By doing so hopefully we can help our boys buck this particular perennial trend.
Produced by Chris Runeckles