Parents forum;School management

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Someone should write a book about the fantasies pregnant women nurture. Some of mine I even shared with my friends. "My son won't play with guns," I confided. "My son will be gentle and caring." Nurture over nature? Of course.

Then came the Easter of my boy's second year. Rather than subject him to yet another choccy egg (no bad eating habits either, you see), we decided to give him some money to spend in the toy shop. Cross my heart, he had never seen an Action Man and never watched a violent movie. I'd monitored it all so carefully. So imagine my dismay when he headed straight for an evil-looking machine gun. Curiosity perhaps but that hardly accounted for the stance, legs akimbo, as he then began to rat-tat-tat round the shop. Nature has a way ofbiting back. I knew then I was beaten.

Nine years later my son was asked to write an essay in school about a time when he'd been disappointed in life. Helpfully, the teacher had provided an essay plan in the form of a series of questions. My son, I thought, produced a thoughtful piece - if a little short. He had simply answered each question succinctly and provided linking words to join it all together. The teacher commented to the effect that she'd have liked a little more about the atmosphere surrounding the events and about how he'd felt as each stage of the drama unfolded. I could see where she was coming from, of course, but I couldn't help reflecting that you might as well ask a pig to fly.

So am I sanguine - or even defeatist - about the recent concerns regarding the way boys are lagging behind girls in most areas of the curriculum, particularly English? I am not.

When my son was two, I conceded defeat only in the battle of the guns. I didn't resign myself to life with an Arnold Schwarzenegger behave-alike. The trick, I decided, was to work with nature rather than against it. I was delighted, therefore, to see that this was the tack taken in the report, Can Do Better, by a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority working party on language teaching ( TES Friday, January 30). A diversity of teaching materials and assessment methods is recommended to meet the particular needs of boys.

But why stop there? Boys may be disadvantaged by a stereotypically "female'' bias in certain subjects but it seems to me there may be much more fundamental bias going on across the board for both sexes. I'm referring in particular to the prevalence in recent years for teaching to be group-based. Both my children, a boy and a girl, report on the amount of talk that goes on in schools nowadays. The one finds it stimulating; the other finds the strain of working within the group makes it very difficult to concentrate and learn. You might care to guess which records the approval rating. Unstereotypically, it's the boy - and that's just my point.

Despite the scars left on me by my Easter experience - or perhaps because of them - I worry about discriminating along sexist lines. Much more useful might be an examination of the learning styles of the particular individual. This is an approach commonly applied these days to training in industry. The same material will be presented in a variety of ways to suit the individual learner's needs. Thus the gregarious activist will enjoy "having a go'', while the reflector will want to collect the data first and reflect on it before coming up front with an answer. The theorist will look for a logical, step-by-step route through the learning while the pragmatist will look for the first opportunity to test the learning in practice.

I'm sure the best teachers are instinctively aware of these kinds of responses in their pupils but do they have the range of material available in each area of their subject to be able to exploit a particular style of learning? More, do those who train teachers do enough to build a conscious awareness of how best to spot and then build on such individual potential?

Not so much "boys will be boys'' as "people will be people''.

Esther Read

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