If you want to improve boys learning, learn what it’s like to be a boy

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A lot has been written about boy’s learning that I agree with; lack of self-esteem, poor motivation, weak presentation/organisation skills, female dominated schools and inability to concentrate for long periods of time etc.
I passionately believe that the way lessons are taught need addressing. You can’t simply dole out facts and figures in a teacher-led model and expect boys to be interested. You can do wonders by employing a facilitator-led model where boys self-regulate their learning and are stimulated by problem solving, collaborative and active learning strategies. I personally loathe those straight-jacketed, assessment led models where virtually every learning step has to be analysed and evaluated. Don’t even get me started on annotation or heavy process models, just let the boys get on with it!
But they aren’t the reason for me writing this blog post. Because I believe that in order to make serious inroads into changing the culture of boys learning you need to begin on the playground. You have to understand what it means to be a boy and learn about how boys operate because boys are prisoners of the macho culture that pervades society. In much the same way that girls are often victims of the ‘girly girl’ stereotype, boys must answer to the macho stereotype. I say boys, but I mean men too. The macho culture hinders male achievement, negates aspiration, inhibits diversity of choice and taste and encourages insolence and disobedience among boys. It creates a culture of fear and intimidation that is difficult to break free from and it is often subconsciously encouraged by male staff. These are my own experiences of the macho stereotype and I hope this insight helps others.
All my life I have been bullied, in childhood by boys and in adulthood by men. But this bullying has frequently been doled out by women too. I’ve been called gay, puff, queer, faggot all my life, by teachers, educated professionals, in the workplace and by even by pupils. Why? Because I am an artist, I am caring and sensitive, I like traditionally non-male things like painting, flowers, craft, classical music and interior design. Growing up in a Northern town, these things were not for boys, there was a  male stereotype to adhere to; my parents thought it was their role as parents to make me tough and strong. They were good people and they were doing what they thought was right, so if I cried I was told to ‘stop being a puff’. When I was too scared to fight at school, my Dad was disgusted at me and called me gay. I was constantly laughed at and made to question whether I was a ‘real’ boy or not because I couldn’t meet the expectations of what being a ‘normal’ boy was. 
Did it get in the way of my education? You bet it did! There was no way I would do ANYTHING that would bring on more ridicule. I’ve deliberately not done school work or not done it to the best of my ability because certain individuals were in the class. And if other boys are larking around in lesson or being naughty, you are honour bound to join in, in fact it becomes a game of how far you dare go. This culture is the sole reason I failed Physics, Chemistry and RE. I was thrown out of many lessons and punished just because I was trying to fit in to what I thought would make me more accepted by the boys.
But it didn’t end when I left school, it carried on into adulthood, down the pub or at work, where I was again called queer because I couldn’t handle my drink or if I didn’t leer at women or I had conversations about art, drama or literature. Fellow workmates and even fellow male teachers have derided me up until very recently for being; ‘a gay art teacher’. One teacher even made a poster and stuck it up on my whiteboard for the whole class to see the next day; Art is gay. If feminine sounding boys attended my art clubs I was told; ‘We know why they’re going to Carney’s classes’. I was even personally confronted by a female member of staff with; ‘What you’ve got a wife? I thought you were queer.’ This was followed by loud guffaws of laughter by a large group of teachers. Apparently it’s funny. Throw my stammer into the mix and you begin to see what I’ve put up with. I’ve been bullied by large groups of kids at school and by teachers as an adult who then say; ‘Oh you don’t mind do you? We’re only having fun.’
You see this is the gauntlet every boy has to run from an early age. We have to be tough, fight, play rough games, like football, wrestling, rugby and other tough sports. You can’t talk about your feelings or emotions or expose an interest in a non-macho area of interest for fear of ridicule. And trust me the ridicule is merciless, it’s constant and it’s brutal. Boys love nothing better than to descend like pack animals onto their victim and verbally attack any sign of weakness. They call it ‘banter,’ a ‘joke’ or ‘we were only having a laugh’ but it’s never fun for the victim and often it’s so bad they don’t want to go to school. Yes, boys will do this to girls too, but girls don’t play by the rules. They have a go back or they tell the teacher. These options are denied to boys because if you have a go back or tell the teacher you’re going to get a beating.
My experience was homophobic ridicule which is very common amongst boys, but as a teacher, I’ve also had to deal with extreme playground mockery of boys being labelled as Jewish, Muslims being labelled terrorists, shy kids being labelled as freaks, kids being told they are ‘skanky, smelly’ and a host of other things. This playground mockery is a lot more powerful than anything you’ll teach in a lesson. It has been going on for as long as I can remember and it hasn’t changed one little bit, despite all of the anti-bullying posters and conscientious efforts by teachers. I’ve witnessed it in deprived state schools and high attaining, affluent schools. Senior Leaders might deny it goes on in their school, but ask the kids and they’ll think that this kind of ‘banter’ is the norm, to be expected. If you want to know why kids don’t want to volunteer for anything, or be presented with a certificate in assembly, or have any form of recognition put their way, then look no further than the extreme playground taunting they will get if they do. Boys get absolutely humiliated from their mates if they are seen to do anything out of the ordinary, it happens walking to school, walking out of school, during breaks and these days it even happens when they are playing on their Playstation or X Box. Try listening in to one of the game chats that go on in their online headsets and you’d be horrified.
Something needs to be done about it. Schools must challenge the macho stereotype in class, at home and on the yard. They must teach young people how to deal with it and demonstrate that boys can be allowed to be many things, that it’s perfectly ok not to conform to the stereotypes. It’s only by doing this and liberating boys from the macho chains that hold them back that you can begin to work with them in the classroom. It’s only when they lose their fear of ridicule that they will get the courage to admit they are stuck or don’t understand. It’s only then that they will begin to realise their potential and diversify into the unchartered territory of high attainment. A good place to begin the change is with the teachers themselves, especially many of the male ones.
Paul
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