Gender studies

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Are boys the "second sex" of the new millennium? These books all address the topical issue of their lack of achievement in school.

There is, of course, little new about male adolescents' disruptive behaviour or their oppositional attitudes to anyone concerned with their education. Their rebelliousness and urge to rattle the bars of any cage prescribed for them have been subjects for writers down the ages, as John Head points out in Understanding the Boys: issues of behaviour and achievement (Falmer Press pound;14.99), citing Shakespeare's Prince Hal. What is new, he suggests, is that some contemporary young men are unable to shake off this stage and progress to maturity.

Head's book provides a useful critique of other theorists and an intelligent summary of current debate. He shows how biological facts can be manipulated to fit preferred explanations and is adept at cutting through the work of others to find the most useful points for action.

For example, while rejecting most of the reactionary "mythopoetic" ideas of Robert Bly's Iron John, he uses the concept of a male "sibling" society in which hierarchies have been flattened out to explain that when men behave as "all boys together", what is lost is the traditional route from rebelliousness to socially responsible behaviour.

Head's preferred explanations are, in the main, psychological, and the second section of the book suggests methods of improving teaching for boys and girls, based on the separation of the cognitive and affective demands of school subjects.

His most powerful theme is the importance of helping boys to understand their psychological make-up, by providing them with information and stimulating debate about masculinity.

Psychological well-being and social responsibility are the key themes of Boys Will Be Men: raising our sons for courage, caring and community by Paul Kivel (pound;12.95 from New Society Publishers distributed by Jon Carpenter, The Spendlove Centre, Charlbury, Oxon OX7 3PQ. Tel: 01689 870437).

Kivel writes in the manner of a Dr Spock parenting guide and, although his work is based on American culture, it deserves consideration because of its balanced good sense and practical advice on dealing with young boys' emotional problems and propensity for violence.

Kivel emphasises the need to involve both sexes in the struggle to bring justice and caring to local communities.

Getting it Right . . . for Boys and Girls by Colin Nobel and Wendy Bradford (Routledge pound;15.99) is the most useful title for supporting current work in schools. Nobel and Bradford have put together a practical and wide-ranging handbook, drawing largely on research on school improvement. Their analysis starts from a whole-school perspective and is underpinned by a confidence in the ability of all teachers to get it right for their pupils. The authors describe strategies that have been adopted in a range of institutions and suggestions on developing policies to guide change.

Elaine Millard Elaine Millard is director ofliteracy research at the University of Sheffield

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