Should we let them do it their way?

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Forget the stereotypes; boys do have a genuine desire to learn..

Every year my garden fills me with delight and disappointment. Delight because of all of the wonders which grow and bloom. Disappointment because some plants don't do well. But I am never discouraged or resentful. I try to think about what went wrong with the failures, take heart from the many successes and then get on with preparations for the next growing cycle.

Like gardening, education can sometimes be a painful and disappointing process. Children, like young plants, need encouragement. When they fail they shouldn't be criticised, punished and humiliated at every turn.

I've thought a lot about the analogy between my garden and the education of boys over the past six months. I've felt delight working with lots of boys, aged from 10 to 17, but I've become increasingly annoyed as I've watched and read the many broadsides about their under-achievement. If these have been intended as constructive criticism they are about as motivating and life enhancing as a Monday morning traffic jam on the M25.

A sense of perspective is what's needed about "the trouble with boys"; I've talked with many this year - not to them or about them - and I've listened to what they have to say.

Their replies confirm what many others before me have found; pupils want to be respected and to work with teachers who care; they want teachers who have a sense of humour, are considerate and open; they want teachers who have a command of their subject and methodology; and they want to be in safe and tension-free settings. Turn teachers and pupils around in this equation, and the desires would be the same.

But, perhaps unlike the teachers, pupils are not at all interested in the causes of under-achievement. My work with some older boys in Hertfordshire shows clearly that they regard all the socio-economic arguments (divorce, drugs, unemployment, intelligence measures) as largely unimportant - although like most girls, they do not dismiss the significance of causes. It's just that they see other issues as being more important in the raising of achievement at school.

Overwhelmingly, they recognise two key factors: the quality of their learning and positive reinforcement of good work - fundamental classroom issues. Simple stuff, perhaps, but as these are two of the much-publicised factors for effective schools, the analysis seems spot on.

Boys, and indeed all pupils, want to be educated in a challenging and rewarding way. Adults mistake this sometimes for pupils wanting to be entertained endlessly. They do enjoy lessons which are fun, but only one in six of the Year 7 pupils I surveyed recently mentioned this. The others talked about attainment, learning factors, teaching styles and subject-specific issues. And central to these ideas were a genuine desire to learn, not to be given easy, undemanding work, and a wish to be encouraged in their learning, not to be poked fun at or dismissed disrespectfully.

Most of the older boys I have worked with are aware of the media focus on boys' under-achievement. They are conscious of the public view of them as being disproportionately numbered among Professor Michael Barber's "disappeared, disruptive, disappointed and disinterested pupils", or as the "stereotypical boyIunable to concentrate or to organise himself, presenting work lacking in quality and quantity, broadly disinterested and unmotivated" discovered by the Homerton College researchers when they talked with staff in a Suffolk school.

My research tells me that boys recognise these images. As one in the Hertfordshire school wrote so eloquently: "The baggy jeans, shaven-headed, baseball-capped with no brains or morals stereotype is becoming increasingly accepted. Boys are now being labelled as irresponsible, lazy, unambitious thugs whose only desire in life is to take drugs and steal cars."

But in my experience they do want to work, they do want to learn and they do want to succeed. Their problem is that they don't want to do it "our" way.

As adults and, particularly, adult educators, well-trained and qualified, we sometimes are reluctant to listen to criticism from young people. As a result we miss out on perceptions which are valuable because of their authenticity and candour.

But if we fail to engage them actively in the process of their growth, many will wither through neglect. We might achieve more by cultivating our garden.

Jon Pickering is an MA student at London University's Institute of Education

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