The bothersome business of the boys education debate #28daysofwriting

Every few weeks an article like this appears in my twitter feed about the state of boys education. These often-well intentioned often have an undertone that the female-dominated teaching workforce clearly know nothing about how boys learn.

The problem with these articles is that they often rely on sexist stereotyping rather than sound pedagogy.

Boys like to run around and be loud.

What about the quiet boys who enjoy reading?

Boys can’t sit still and concentrate for long periods of time.

Yet video games require hours of doing just that.

Because biology.

Well science changes.

It wasn’t too long ago that scientists  thought girls wouldn’t be able to cope with being educated as it might melt their feminine brains. Our society expects our educators not to rely on stereotypes when it comes educating our girls or students from different cultures yet when it comes to boys too many educators are quick to swallow cliches without stopping to think about the wider context.

Boys are different you will tell me.

My question is from whom?

Each other?

Nope.

Girls.

Boys aren’t girls.

And there in lies the problem.

Too often discourse of boys education is centred around a very narrow stereotype of the loud, sporty alpha boy. One that loves rugby and hates reading or anything ‘girly.’ While that stereotype might fit some boys in a class what does our construction of masculinity say to the boy who enjoys painting or baking?

That you aren’t a real boy.

This attitude limits learning.

A couple of years ago I introduced my class to the blokey hobby of cake decorating. To a 12 year old cake decorating = art you get to eat. As far as the kids were concerned this was the best thing ever. Yet at some point the boys are going to get a message that cake decorating is for girls. They’ll forget how much they enjoyed making and eating their cupcakes. They’ll scoff it at as a ‘girly activity’  in a desire to fit in.

Do I shy away from an activity for fear it might be seen as being ‘girly?’

Not read a book because it features a girl in the main character?

Or do I make sure the classrooms draws in a wide range of perspectives, learning engagements and fostering a culture of mistake making to help kids find their true passions?

Perhaps it this narrow construction of boys’ identity which is viewed in opposition to femininity that makes boys feel like they don’t fit at school.

We’ve created an environment that makes boys go out and prove they aren’t girls as a way to gain social acceptance and we do so with one damaging phrase.

“Boys will be boys”

This phrase assumes:

1. all boys are the same.

2. boys have no control over their actions because they are boys.

If we look around at the toys we give to our children and the play with and the gendered qualities adults notice in name in our children before they are even born, I think boys are socialised to be less compliant of bad pedagogy (sit down and listen while the teacher explains boring stuff). That’s a good thing. Having active classrooms where children’s interests are respected and nurtured isn’t something we should demand for our boys but our girls too.

Do I think there needs to be more male educators in schools?

Absolutely.

But not for the narrow purpose of ‘manning up’ education but rather because teaching kids is an awesome and worthwhile job.

As a child my father was a stay at home dad which in the 1980s wasn’t all too common.

I remember how often the teachers would comment about how nice it was for the boys to have a male role model to run around with on the school trips. 30 something years later what I wished they had said was how nice it was that my Dad was taking an interest in his daughter’s which was the real reason he was there.

In my opinion showing up was what made my Dad a powerful role model.  He was bucking the narrow definitions of gender roles by showing that childcare can, and should be, the responsibility of both genders.

Conforming to stereotypes is easy, finding your true passion in life is hard. We owe to our boys and girls to ensure their education draws out the best them they can be.

The most important lesson the boys in my class could leave with?

That you can love rugby, reading as well as my little pony and you are still a boy.

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5 thoughts on “The bothersome business of the boys education debate #28daysofwriting

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  1. This post really resonated with me. As you say it’s something that is often talked about but the basic premise is often taken for granted. Girls or boys, what matters most is that they are engaged in class – funny how that can often make this whole gender debate moot. Your post is also a good reminder that what we are debating is a culturally assigned norm rather than anything definitively linked to gender. My younger son is 5 and has just started school – he loves My Little Pony amongst other ‘girly’ things but is already being ‘told’ by peers and teachers that it’s somehow weird if he wants the pink ballet book from the library etc. My older son likes the usual ‘boy’ things – but he loves watching My Little Pony and reading ballet books at bedtime as much as his little brother – all he wants is a good story. I don’t want them to be told (or learn to tell others) who they are, how they learn and what they enjoy on the basis of what sex they are.

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    1. Hi Sophia
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I had a few Year 8 boys who were into My Little Pony and as far as I concerned, that was awesome. It did raise a few eyebrows among my colleagues.

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  2. Another stunning, insightful piece – well done. I love the fact that you acknowledge how important it is to treat every child as an individual rather than as fitting some kind of mould that is stereotypical. Let them learn I say. Let them discover and inquire and wonder and dare rather than make them squash into a bunch of labels and expectations based on their gender.

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    1. Hi Kimberley
      Thanks so much for your kind comment. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to stop putting labels on kids. I’m wondering why it is so pervasive in the context of boys education.

      Stephanie

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