How boys can resolve class stress

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Giving children more responsibility will help to engage boys in classroom tasks, while also benefiting girls and reducing teacher stress, says Colin Noble.

"WITH this theory of the historical dialectic," Frederik Engels may well have said to Karl Marx, "I now understand how the world works."

"The point," replied Marx, "is not merely to understand how it works - but to change it."

Karl Marx, stress management and raising the achievement of boys and girls may be linked in a negative fashion.

Most people have a reasonable idea about the principles of preventing and managing stress. Yet they still work too hard, eat the wrong things, rest too little, exercise rarely and fail to love themselves. And so it is with raising boys' achievement. The research has been done, the literature produced, the courses and conferences attended. Teachers are more aware than ever that two genders inhabit the classroom, and that they may bring with them a predilection for certain teaching and learning styles.

The course over, the school is left to do what seemed at the time quite feasible, even inspirational, but now seems more difficult.

The best of them form working parties, write SMART action plans and wait for change. It is this management of change that is most difficult. Asking somebody to change their teaching style after many years of tried and trusted service is tantamount to a shotgun divorce. There will be resistance, self-doubt, profound questions about justice and the meaning of it all.

Teachers are really tired, genuinely exhausted in a way I have not seen before. Carrying out some Investors in People interviews in a large primary school recently, I had the impression of ultra-committed people who were going flat out every minute of every day just to keep the show on the road.

In an initiative-rich era they longed for some stability, even more than for the holidays, just to give themselves time to reflect and catch up with each other. One bout of a normal winter's 'flu would have knocked them all out and closed the school. They had nothing more to give.

So in this climate how can we persuade teachers that addressing boys' underachievement is within their resources? The first thing they need to understand is that getting it right for boys will also get it right for girls. It is not a zero-sum game. Boys tend to react more quickly and publicly to inappropriate teaching than girls. It could be argued that the level of boys' achievement in a school is a more sensitive barometer of good teaching than that of girls'.

If more boys are on task for longer periods the climate of the classroom changes to become more focused on learning. And teachrs have more time to give to girls who want to learn.

Furthermore, the sort of styles which many boys say they favour - active learning, purposeful tasks, social learning and the transforming of information - will also help girls. Many girls, like many boys, are under-achieving, both at school (look at the sciences) and in society.

One of the reasons is the curriculum and pedagogic diet they are offered and which they, more than boys, accept. It does not help them to merely applaud their success in our dull national curriculum with its emphasis on listening, writing notes and copying. (If you don't believe it, ask a student or spend a day with one). We should also be encouraging them to take considered risks, to cut corners, when appropriate, to challenge, to speculate and to be assertive.

So, as well as showing that this sort of work helps both genders we also have to persuade teachers that it's actually easier and more pleasurable. The key is to give pupils more responsibility in the classroom and in the school.

It may begin with group work, research, games, competitions, drama and noisier, more purposeful, classrooms with more responsibility for learning. It may well develop into pupils taking more responsibility for how and what they learn, as is already happening in some schools. This would include assessment for learning as pupils identify personal strengths and areas of development as their learning progresses.

This is far less demanding than keeping a recalcitrant group of boys on a task for which neither they nor their teacher can really explain the value.

There's a wind of change howling through the corridors of education - again.

In the new orders for personal and social health education and citizenship there is increased emphasis on participation, inclusiveness and giving responsibility. This is backed up by the new Healthy School Standard, which all schools are expected to access by 2002. Government interest in democratic renewal, active citizenship, equality of opportunity, social inclusion and sustainable development have all got to find expression in school. They cannot be principles we teach about. The learning experience has to reflect them - and this will help boys and girls.

Karl Marx, stress management and raising achievement may be linked in a positive way. By focusing on the ways to get it right we will also help our colleagues to become less stressed by teaching. Now, that would be revolutionary.

Colin Noble is a raising boy's achievement manager for Kirklees education authority. He is co-author, with Wendy Bradford, of Getting it right for boys ...and girls, published by Routledge, 2000, pound;15.99

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