'Boys will be boys, won't they? Only if we let them be'

One vice principal questions how teachers can challenge the stereotype of the underachieving boy and help male students to reach their full potential

Aidan Severs

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Is there such a thing as a typical boy or a typical girl? When Jones and Myhill (2004) conducted their study into teacher perceptions of boys and girls the majority said that "the high-achieving girl is a typical girl, and the underachieving boy is a typical boy".

The same teachers also said they believed that boys and girls have equal academic potential. This doesn’t compute. The researchers concluded that there has been a "construction of an inherent relationship between gender and achievement".

"How do I get boys into reading?" "What can I use to inspire boys to write?" "What behaviour management strategies work for boys?" These are often asked questions in staffrooms and on social media across the UK. Something has to change if boys are to start matching girls’ achievement, but perhaps we don’t have to resort to "boy-friendly" resources and teaching methods.

What if it’s not necessary to do anything different to help boys achieve? What if we just need to think something different? What if we stopped seeing boys as cartoon caricatures (Dennis the Menace, Horrid Henry, Bart Simpson) and started seeing them as individuals with individual needs? It is bizarre how we quite happily lump half the population into one group and make judgements about ability, behaviour and potential based on that.

The 'underachieving' boy?

Yes, we must ensure that our curriculum doesn’t disinterest boys, but we shouldn’t feel the need to go to the opposite extreme; making it all about cars, footballers and all that other "boy" stuff that we so glibly believe in. And if you’re a female teacher, it doesn’t mean you can’t teach boys well. We all, male and female teachers alike, must make sure we are not conforming subconsciously to the deep-seated societal biases.

When we analyse data we look at boys and we look at girls and then we make assumptions. What would happen if we dug further? Perhaps it is just a handful of boys who are bringing down the percentages. What’s their story? Did one have a lot of time off? Has another been involved in a child protection case? Does one come from a home that has no books? There have got to be other factors besides the fact that they are a boy – find them and tackle those issues. If you try to address problems based on the generalisation that they are a boy, where on earth are you going to start? You’ve got nothing.

Equal treatment

But boys will be boys, won’t they? Only if we let them be. Only if we encourage them to be. Only if almost everything we do is based on a stereotype that allows boys to get away with all the negative things we so unthinkingly associate them with: misbehaviour, disengagement, boisterousness, loudness, and so on.

Rather than seeking out boy-specific ways of teaching, teachers need to treat boys and girls equally and as individuals – and boys should be brought along for the ride. This shouldn’t be something teachers do surreptitiously. The boys should be aware that you have high expectations of them and that they aren’t going to receive any special treatment because they are a boy. They need to be told what they are capable of and shown truly that to be a boy isn’t to be an underachiever.

This construct will take a lot of undoing, but if we truly want our boys to do better at school perhaps we’d better stop working so hard to perpetuate it.

Aidan Severs is an assistant vice principal at a primary school in the North of England. He blogs at ThatBoyCanTeach and tweets @thatboycanteach

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Aidan Severs

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