So, let’s talk about ‘Boy’s Don’t Try?’

This has been a long time coming after neglecting my blog writing intentions for over a year. However, earlier this year a book was published which has already had a profound effect on the way I teach. I decided to run a staff seminar on this book, as current lead for educational research at my school. Yes, I was excited when I saw this book advertised on Twitter and the really positive reviews that came flooding in, but it was the potential to get a conversation going on this issue in my own school that really pushed me into reading it. I have read the book from cover to cover, it made me laugh and cry, made my angry with myself for times when I have lowered expectations, both of myself and the boys I teach. It is an overwhelmingly positive book, which is positive about men and boys. I am a feminist. I think everyone should be a feminist. I think that people who lower their expectations of boys are not promoting anything at all, but instead are simply limiting the potential of boys. It is people like this who also like to push the ‘man up’ agenda, or who feel the need to slate the feminist movement. The key here, is that the title of this book is ‘Boys Don’t Try?’ with a question mark NOT a full stop – it is about expectations rather than limitations. This blog is simply my thoughts on this book, how I interpreted the authors meaning and how I would like to see this conversation manifesting itself in schools.

Pinkett and Roberts suggest that these are the questions we should be asking our boys:

  • Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?
  • Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?
  • Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?
  • Does he commit to personal growth?
  • Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?
  • Is he unafraid of male intimacy?

I personally loved the protest against the term ‘toxic masculinity’. Think about it, do we really want to tell our boys that they are toxic, when the very word implies something contaminating or disease ridden? We don’t want our boys thinking that that is how we feel about them. We want the boys we teach to feel that they are valued and that we want them to be present, both physically and emotionally. We greet them at the door, we ask them how they are, we say good morning, we compliment their smiles, we make a mental note of any angry or sad faces, we make sure we spend time with them on our ‘rounds’ of the classroom. We need to engage with them in the way that we want them to engage with us.

On the topic of engagement, there are three engagement myths which are explored in this book. I can put my hands up and say that I have been guilty of all of these:

  1. Boys like competition
  2. Learning must be made relevant to boys’ interests
  3. Boys have different learning styles

However, these myths can be damaging to boys because of the following:

  1. Boys are not all the same – in fact they are not one mass, and are usually as different to one another as they could be to girls
  2. It prevents boys from building a cultural capital e.g. by creating a world cup game around Shakespeare it is detracting from the language and vocabulary. We are limiting their exposure to new ideas as well as making assumptions about what boys like (some boys hate football and will find the lesson dull) and limiting their academic potential
  3. It encourages low expectations
  4. It promotes the dominant anti-school masculinity
  5. It plays on the largely discredited (most notably by psychologist Daniel Willingham) assumption that boys are usually kinaesthetic learners – leading to my favourite quote of the book…‘Boys continue to wander and fondle for no good reason’ p20

So, what do the authors recommend? Teach boys in exactly the same way you would teach girls, high challenge, high expectations, no gimmicks, no shortcuts.

Now onto expectations more broadly. This was a truly fascinating chapter where I had to really challenge my own expectations of boys. In research conducted at Exeter University it was found that girls who excelled academically were viewed as being seen as typical girls, while underachieving boys were viewed as typical of their gender.

The chapter also looks at the concept of ‘degrees of laddishness’ and I found this quote particularly interesting –  ‘it depends on whether they are being laddish with you or laddish against you’ – I think this is something that we experience at a lot as teachers, where we constantly feel like we need to get certain boys on-side. This, the authors suggest, has a huge impact on our behaviour management of boys and can lead to inconsistency. The chapter also highlights the disparities in disciplining boys and disciplining girls, where 62% of boys felt like they were treated unfavourably by teachers. In co-ed schools there is often a disproportionate number of boys in bottom sets and the chapter goes into a lot of detail on the arguments against setting for mindset and expectations, which I would really encourage you to read.

The main premise of the chapter on expectations is on the Pygmalion effect vs the Golem effect. The idea that high expectations have a highly beneficial influence on outcomes and the opposite Golem effect where negative expectations lead to poor outcomes. The authors specifically reference teachers going through class lists as a negative practice that can lead to Golem effect and this is something I think we should all be thinking about when starting with new classes in September. I am starting a new school in the Autumn Term and I am hyper aware that this opportunity to be a brand new face is special. I would not want the students to make judgements on me, and I certainly will not be sitting down with teachers to be given the ‘low-down’ on them. It’s not right, and it’s not fair.

There are two chapters which really stuck out to me as ‘must reads’ – the one disadvantaged students and the one on sexism. My point of view is shaped from being a ‘disadvantaged’ student myself, and also that I teach in a wealthy area, therefore the students that we do have in the school who need financial support have their own specific needs that result from being surrounded by wealth and privilege. For example, when our disadvantaged students get into university, they are likely to graduate with £14,000 more debt than our students who do not need to apply for full loans. By the way, that puts you at a disadvantage every month for the rest of your life, when your wealthy friends have that extra money for saving and you don’t.

This is something that is very close to my heart, I come from a working class background, my little sister is pupil premium, however, I have never met a mother who cares more about their child’s education than mine. My eyes watered when we discussed pupil premium strategies and funding in a staff meeting, listening to the assumptions and generalisations made by the teachers at my school. Our education system is centred around middle class values and the ‘character education’ that is being widely implemented around British schools has been criticised by some from trying to instil these middle class values on working class students, belittling their own family values. Every time a teacher comments on diet, asks about holidays or assumes that parents who don’t turn up for parents evenings are lazy.

However, the situation is clearly complex. How can we give the students the cultural capital (that the book also discusses in great detail) without challenging these values? I can’t deny that I did not feel the effects of this lack of cultural capital when I went to university. I struggled in seminars to find the words, I was intimidated by middle-class peers, even though we had achieved the same grades. Was this because my teachers had dumbed things down for me? Did they decrease my cultural capital? Yes. My english teacher, and hero in life, maintained high expectations of me and I got an A in my A-level. My history teacher did not teach me about historiography. I now know that Johnny and Daisy had extra lessons where they were taught about this. I now know that historiography is crucial in achieving high grade A-level history. I now know why I got a C in history and an A in English. It was my teachers perceptions of what I could achieve.

The second chapter that has really stuck with me was chapter 6. So, let’s talk about numbers straight away:

  • 1 in 5 girls we teach will experience sexual violence
  • There over 3,000 revenge porn sites on the internet
  • If an individual watched the top 50 porn titles they would see 3,375 aggressive acts towards women. Gagged 756 times, open hand slap 361 times, hair pulled 267 times, choked 180 times
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said they have experienced some form of sexual harassment at school
  • 54% of female students and 34% of male students say they have witnessed someone using sexist language

ALL teachers need to be aware of this. We need to stop placing emphasis on things like sexting and ignoring the bigger issues. It is not enough to have one session on this in year 10. Year 10 is too late. The final bullet point there is revealing. There seems to be a disparity between what some girls think of as sexist language, and what some boys think of. This is the problem. This is what schools need to be talking about and SLT needs to be leading on.

Hannah Wilson, founder of Women-Ed suggests the following:

  1. We need a sexist log to sit alongside a racist log and one for homophobia
  2. Schools need to have a clear and concise policy on sexism, made publicly available to staff, students and parents
  3. Make it clear that it is not acceptable and NOT an inevitable part of growing up
  4. Do not tolerate or dismiss behaviours as ‘banter’ or ‘boys being boys’ or ‘just having a laugh’

The book calls for ‘absolute clarity’ in dealing with this issue and supporting boys in navigating this reality. I see it every day in my school and outside of school. Not sexual harassment, but the way in which sexism is downplayed as an issue. The way the media tries to demonise feminists. The way male members of staff make jokes at their female colleagues expense. The way my girls make perfectly valid points as a question.

But to finish, let’s go back to the boys and the relationships that boys have with each other. The chapter on relationships asks the question: why are boys for horrible to each other? They talk about banter. The authors suggest that banning this word completely in school misses the point. The point is that sometimes it is very hard for students to understand the line between banter and bullying in fact 29% of young people who have been bullied in the last 12 months have said the bully was a close friend. It talks about the origins of ‘your mum’ jokes and how these can escalate into deeply disturbing and out of control comments about people’s mothers as ‘banter’ but stresses that it is up to the adults in the school to decide on these boundaries and provide the students with clarity. It also discusses how staff ‘banter’ can have an extremely negative effect on the students for example using sarcasm in front students or saying to students that you don’t like history or maths etc as a joke. Sarcasm used by teachers only confuses these boundaries. Once again, this book is calling for clarity, it is calling for conversation, it is calling for high expectations of boys, of girls and of the adults in a school.

In summary, I would implore you to read this book, then to share your thoughts. Get a conversation going in your own school. Read extracts out in your office. Hold a seminar. Talk to your form about it. Ask the boys (and the girls)what they think. I am just a history teacher with a passion for education. I will be blogging as I go from here on in about educational issues that I feel are important, but I couldn’t think of a better reintroduction to blogging life than the wonderful ‘Boy’s Don’t Try?’ by Mark Roberts and Matt Pinkett. Please feel free to message me on Twitter or leave a comment if you would like to keep the conversation going.

Many thanks for reading,

Eliza

@elizablwest

 

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