Computers are a powerful weapon in the fight against the lads' culture of underachievement, says Anne Bruce
THE TEACHING strategies presented by gender guru Geoff Hannan at an in-service conference in Dunblane (TESS, May 14) gave me, as an English teacher, a strong sense of deja vu.
The structured approach he advocated leans heavily on the reading development strategies of almost 20 years ago (DARTS), and the suggestions presented are in fact a rehash of Language across the Curriculum initiatives which fell away in many schools before making a significant impact on the curriculum, as well as what is quite simply established good practice in terms of learning and teaching (seating arrangements, use of pairs for classroom discussion) together with some elements taken from thinking skills.
That this is now wrapped up in the fashionable packaging of the underachievement of boys and the gender implications of an increasingly girl-friendly curriculum is perhaps no surprise, but we should have learnt to be wary of gurus with simplistic explanations and easy answers.
Instead, we should take what we know about gender differences and learning styles and use this to build a people-friendly learning environment in schools, celebrating difference, encouraging and rewarding success, and getting to the heart of what raising achievement is all about.
A strong factor in underachievement is the culture where young people are targeted as consumers, where it is not "cool" to be a "geek" (swot), where underachievement is itself held up as an aspiration (see Bart Simpson's ubiquitous slogan) and where role models, especially for boys, are media personalities and sports celebrities such as Gazza whose antics on and off the soccer field are given wide coverage.
The culture of school, with its "deferred gratification" and long-term goals, has its work cut out to compete with the fast-moving glitz and hype of youth culture. The challenge for schools is how to switch on switched-off pupils, to make them want to learn, to make them "buy into" the culture of school - in other words, to see that there is something in it for them.
Research shows that computers provide motivation and encouragement for even the most reluctant learners, especially boys (though recent evidence shows that girls are fast catching up since the "C" for communication was added to IT). It is evident that boys are switched on by computers, that they find IT sexy - the challenge is to harness this to the problems of underachievement.
Reading and writing programs such as Storybook Weaver and Writer's Toolkit make basic literacy practice much more appealing to boys. Writing tasks take on a totally new meaning when linked with Claris Home Page, where web pages can be built and design features readily incorporated to achieve attractive presentation. Ample motivation for learners more used to producing grubby, scrawled pieces of writing.
Using reading skills to find out information by surfing the Internet is more attractive to many boys than reading books. The instant nature of online information retrieval, the visual impact of chunks of accessible information and the clarity of lots of colour-coded "advance organisers" and "bullet points" - all these tie up neatly with the characteristics of boys' learning. (Possible problems of keeping learners on task can be addressed by offline access or use of cached resources.) Indeed, research from Norway shows that literacy levels and language facility (especially in English) are increasing among boys because of the Internet. This should provide food for thought for modern languages, too.
The structured approach and presentation of learning materials advocated to counter the underachievement of boys are important factors in computer-aided learning. Enormous opportunities have opened up because of advances in online learning. Will this also prove to be boy-friendly in terms of achieving success?
Some international models have evolved for pupils with behaviour problems who are excluded from school. The prospect of online learning that can be accessed at home, from any provider centre in the world, should focus attention on these developments.
Integrated learning systems such as RM's Successmaker also seem to be particularly suited to boys' approach to learning, with the individualised, target-driven, competitive (and reward-oriented) aspects built into the system. As far as I am aware, research evidence on such systems has not yet included gender-specific evaluations, but anecdotal evidence from Scottish schools seems to suggest the greatest success has been achieved in motivating underachieving groups (mainly boys).
Interactive systems allow pupils to learn away from the problems of peer pressure, fear of failure and embarrassment, while giving continuous feedback and reinforcement (Of course, the attractions of this do not only appeal to males: we are all human, after all.) Simplistic approaches and single answers to difficult questions rarely work. Solutions are more often complex, to match the complexity of the problems we face in schools. However, it does seem clear that at a time when young people are surrounded by slick media images the continuing reliance of schools on outdated technology and audio-visual aids (such as writing with chalk on a blackboard) will not provide an attractive option for many pupils.
The new technologies offer attractive solutions which we ignore at our peril: the skills pupils will need for the future are increasingly sophisticated and if boys are to acquire these multi-tasking skills as well as the basic functionality of the traditional three Rs we should plug into them, and thereby raise achievement levels.
Anne Bruce is depute headteacher, Rosehall High School, Coatbridge.