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A bunch of fives sorts out the boys

Geoff Hanna explains his methods for changing and improving the thinking and learning styles of boys and girls. Consider self-assembly furniture in the hands of an average couple. What happens? The woman gets out the instructions to follow them step by step. The man gets out his tools and starts to assemble it. Why does this happen? The same reasons, I suggest, that lead boys to underachieve in school.

From playing with dolls, to going shopping, to looking after siblings; girls tend to be brought up to have relationships with people, to be responsible for themselves and others, with a strong emphasis on communication. They are brought up as "the talkers".

Boys, on the other hand, are brought up to have relationships with objects. They are "the doers".

Young Johnny, like his dad with the furniture, has many learning weaknesses. His oral skills are weaker. He doesn't so much talk as grunt. On the descriptive-reflective-speculative hierarchy of language he has missed out on the reflective: on the expression of feeling.

His literacy skills, his organisational and analytical skills are much weaker. His lack of competence (and interest) in analysing, sequencing and prioritising are central to his academic underachievement. He has a lower concentration span, is less malleable and is easily bored, especially by a diet of instructions, worksheets and writing.

Where a girl would be a natural student, Johnny is a boy first. Where a girl would get on with her work, Johnny spends his time interacting with his mates to explore what it actually means to be a boy. Like most men, Johnny needs immediate gratification. Also like most men, he needs extrinsic reward and approval for his actions. When Johnny's dad gets around to assembling the furniture (eventually having had to read the instructions) he needs mum to applaud his efforts.

Like mum and dad, boys and girls have differing ways of doing things and differing learning styles. He does first and then (hopefully) thinks. She thinks first and then (hopefully) does.

He has a trial and error, experiential learning style rooted in confidence, competence and interest in the manipulation of objects and systems. He is a speculative thinker (leading towards physics as a subject). She has a language-centred, sequential learning style, rooted in an interest in people and relationships. She is a reflective thinker (leading towards English).

So much for theory but what can we do about it? Here are just a few of the strategies that I have developed through equal opportunities work with young people.

Develop a wide variety of approaches, based on a step-by-step approach, each time extending the time spent on a task. Start where the student is and use a descriptive-reflective-speculative progression in the lesson. Not "what can we do about the problems of boys?" but, "Here's a sheet of paper. With the person next to you, find 10 statements about boys and what they are like at school. You have five minutes - go." (Descriptive.)

"Now select one of your statements and draw columns. Find five good things and five bad things connected with the statement." (Reflective: developing boys' competence in this important area.)

"Now take one of your bad things. What can we do about the problems this causes for the boy himself and others in school?" (Speculative.) Communicate the challenge as well as the relevance in what you are teaching. Demand active student participation right at the start, simultaneously develop reflective analysis and ensure that this participation is met by praise and reward. How? At the start of your lesson, abandon showing of hands.Instead say, "Here's my question. Talk with the person next to you and find five answers to the question - it's difficult."

Go around the class and meet each contribution with affirmation. Practise the vocabulary of praise.

Explore the possibilities of "going for five". I have developed subject templates that teachers are using to teach analysis and structuring skills. Plan a story that has five things happen in it. plan five steps in technology before realisation. in science, analyse five steps in the experiment. Through this process you are actively teaching the organisation, planning and analysis skills that many students, especially boys, lack.

Plan a structured and pluralistic approach to group work with boys and girls working together at times. Facilitate the students sharing, helping, teaching and learning from and with every other student in the class - not just their friends.

In behaviour management, avoid confrontation. (Some disruptively minded boys thrive on it.) Predict, prevent, minimalise and only counter as a last resort.

Don't put Johnny down in front of his mates he'll only want to get back at you. Instead, walk over to him and whisper the reprimand, separating him from his mistake: "Stop that it's stupid. Come on, get involved John, you're an intelligent young man . . . thank you."

It is praise that changes behaviour not reprimand. Rather than finding fault, catch Johnny doing things right and praise him for it.

And let's abandon all systematic structures of failure for our children. How can we motivate boys to achieve in school when as early as the age of 11 we label most as "less able" by the processes of setting.

Good mixed-ability teaching is where it's at. Even "ability" is a misnomer (you only ever measure "attainment"). Let's lose it from our vocabulary, together with the "what can we expect from these kids" mindset. We all know that boys are under-attaining compared to their potential. We all know that what we get from children is exactly what we expect we'll get.

There is a mutual need for the low and high attainer to have access to each other - for learning skills development but also for life-skills development. Johnny needs his access to the communication and learning skills of the girls. Mum and dad assemble the furniture better when they work together.

Geoff Hanna is an author and professional trainer. He runs "Improving Boys' Performance" training programmes for organisations around the country. For further information, telephone 01952 727332.

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