Rethinking Boys’ Engagement – My talk from #TLLLeeds17

Lots of people have asked me to share my talk from the Teaching & Learning conference held at The Grammar School At Leeds on Saturday 1 July. As you can expect from a 40 minute session, it’s quite a long read. I wrote this script in advance and memorised most of it, but of course the wording will differ slightly from what I actually delivered. I’ve also attached my slides at the end:


Teaching boys is straightforward.

That’s what I was told as a trainee teacher. There were strategies to follow. Top tips to implement. Sure fire ways of guaranteeing engagement in every single lesson. These strategies were logical. They were common sense. They worked for me.

Think back to the start of your career; I’d like you to write down three of the boys’ engagement strategies that you were given. Let’s see if they match with mine. We’ll come back to these later.

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself and how I ended up here standing in front of you today as “the boy guy”. I grew up not far from here, in an ex-mining town. I went to the local comp and had a very poor experience at school. I caused lots of problems for my teachers. It took me a long time to finish my education and, having taken the scenic route, I ironically ended up deciding to be a teacher.

Towards the end of my PGCE year, I found myself in a job interview, at the school where I did my second placement. An inner city comp for boys in Manchester, it was located in an area of very high deprivation, very high EAL, very high FSM. A challenging school. As you can imagine, most of the questions were about engagement and behaviour. To be honest, I found it dead easy to answer these: all I needed to do was parrot back the advice I’d been given in university and explain how I’d adapted these in my practice so far. I got the job. The school was the perfect fit for me. I understood boys. I grew up with my three brothers in a masculine household. Back in the day, I was even was a boy myself. This was going to be fine.

And things were fine. I implemented my boy-friendly strategies, tested out my top tips and my classes did really well. My pupils’ GCSE results were excellent. I was promoted three times in three years. This struck me as a vindication of the teaching strategies that I’d used so far.

OK, so my career was motoring along – cruising actually – and sure enough, now in the role of Head of English, I was asked to lead CPD on…yes, you’ve guessed it: boys’ engagement. People came out of these sessions saying nice things. Really enjoyable. Very useful. Hell, some people might even have used some of the strategies I gave them in their own classroom. We can but dream.

In 2014 I decided to do something radical. In search of a new challenge I got myself a job at a school that was a mixed comp. This meant that I would now be teaching girls as well. I know… crazy. It also meant relocating to Devon. The new school was in a lovely, affluent middle class area but had a significant intake from local villages that followed the pattern of rural deprivation. The English results were below where they should be given the entry data. Boys in particular were massively underperforming.

I was under no illusions that the main reason I’d been given the job was my reputation as  the “boy guy”, the answer – no, the panacea – for all their boy-fuelled nightmares. The first year, I’d sort out English. The following year I’d spread my magic fairy dust over the rest of the college. And the funny thing is, that’s what started to happen. The results for boys began to improve. Oddly though, they also did for girls. I put that down to girls being compliant. It was obvious that they’d just gone along with the boy stuff.

Towards the end of that first year in Devon, I wrote a blog – my first ever – on how to improve progress through boys’ engagement. And to bring things full circle, I was also asked to deliver more CPD sessions on – yes, you’ve guessed it – boys’ engagement. Things were going exactly as they should be. My strategies continued to bear fruit.

Not long after writing that first blog, I had an epiphany. In the shower. My epiphanies always happen in the shower. I don’t know why. Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. In fact, it wasn’t sudden; it had been niggling away in the back of my brain for a few months, including while I was writing my boys’ engagement blog.

What happened is I realised that all of my views on how to teach boys were actually… bollocks.

Well, not all of them. But a fair chunk. Especially the boys’ engagement strategies that had been the bedrock of my teaching practice.

So what made me rethink boys’ engagement? What had occurred in the meantime to bring about this dramatic U-turn – the sort that would make Theresa May blush.

Two things has happened. 1) Since joining Twitter, I’d started to read what other people – clever people – had to say about gender and education. 2) I’d started reading books about education – properly reading them, not just skimming over for juicy quotes like I’d done in my busy PGCE year.

The rest of this talk will take you through some of those boys’ engagement strategies that I’d had preached to me, and I had preached in turn. I’ll show you why they are myths, not facts. Then I’ll show you what I did next with my newfound knowledge. Then I’ll give you a list of three things to take away, which I think make all the difference when teaching boys.

Myth number one is:

  1. Boys like competition
  • Demotivates boys who don’t immediately succeed
  • Boys who don’t succeed are the ones who need most motivation

Jackson (2002; 2006) Elkjaer (1992)

Now of course some boys love competition, including myself. But the problem you have when you start introducing competition into the classroom is this: in a classroom, there can only be a finite amount of winners. And boys are very good at quickly working out if they are going to be one of the winners. And if they aren’t they will opt out or not try very hard.

I remember vividly a competition I used to run in the early years of my career: the PEA World Cup knockout. As the winning pair of pupils held aloft their prize (a box of Maltesers) I recall looking at their joyful faces feeling proud that I have inspired them to excel, to produce outstanding work. What I didn’t realise, that I do now, is that the many losers were left silently deflated.

Myth number two is:

  1. Boys and girls are ‘naturally different’ and need to be taught differently
  • Differences between the ‘male brain’ and ‘female brain’ are slight and contentious
  • More within gender differences than between gender differences

Baron-Cohen (2004), Slavin (1994)

Like many other teachers on Twitter, I’ve been very much influenced by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Reading and re-reading it, I was struck by the fact that this book, all about how we best learn and retain knowledge, doesn’t mention gender. At all. So I asked him why it didn’t. And very generously, he replied. His email said:

  • boys do better on standardized tests, girls earn better classroom grades
  • distributions of boys’ and girls’ performance on either one is largely overlapping
  • addressing it is not likely to make either group learn more in school

This is the biggie for me. Myth number three:

  1. Boys need topics that are relevant to them
  • ‘Boy-friendly’ curricula do not improve boys’ achievement
  • Gender-stereotyping ignores pupils’ genuine interests and limit aspirations of boys (and girls)

Pickering (1997), Lingard et al (2002; 2003), Keddie and Mills (2008), Younger and Warrington at al (2005)

I spent days, weeks, years designing curricula that were as boy-friendly as possible. Every element of my planning was based around making learning as relevant as possible to boys’ lives. There are many reasons why this was wrong, including:

  • It is practically impossible to make things relevant to all the pupils in your class. Unless, of course, you teach to stereotypes and assume there is one thing called ‘the boy’ who is an extrovert and likes football, gaming etc. And we’ve all met plenty of boys who don’t fit that description
  • We all get bored eventually, even of things that we are normally interested in. As Willingham notes ‘the content of a problem may be sufficient to prompt your interest, but it won’t maintain it.’
  • We often only remember the ‘relevant’ part (e.g. a mention of a football player) but forget the actual learning bit
  • On the other hand, how many times have you found yourself reading an article, or watching a documentary, about something you had no interest in, only to find yourself gripped?
  • Therefore, the search for relevance limits our pupils. It deprives them – especially our most disadvantaged pupils – the opportunity to accrue cultural capital about topics we presume will not interest them. And that is unacceptable.

Now let’s look at a couple more common myths. These ones are different though: I knew they were bollocks from the outset:

4.Boys have different learning styles

How many times were you told that boys were most likely to be kinaesthetic learners and needed the opportunity to move around or touch stuff? Luckily, I intuitively ignored this long before it was debunked. The problem is that 90% of teachers apparently still believe this kind of crap. Keep spreading the word.

5. Boys prefer male teachers

During my time as “the boy guy” at no point was I arrogant enough to believe that being male made me a better teacher of boys. I’ve met many female teachers who do a fantastic job with male pupils.

6. All boys are struggling

Not all of them. Some are doing fine. Others, like white working class boys are generally not.

Now you’re probably thinking wait a minute. You told us your results were really good. How come that was the case if you were following these bollocks strategies? I’d asked myself the same questions:

  1. How had I managed to get such good results while following these strategies?
  2. How come I’d managed to get good results out of really difficult boys?

 After the original crushing devastation of realising I’d swallowed a load of bunkum for years,  I realised something that left me feeling liberated. Joyous even. The answer was obvious. My pupils had done really well despite these strategies. Which meant that my other teaching approaches must have really worked.

Once I’d grasped this I was asked to undertake a whole school improvement project as part of my NPQSL.

Risk factors

To identify which boys were most likely to underperform, I devised a risk factor model. I trawled back through our data and realised that the boys who did worst in exams at my school were likely to have been:

  • Boys
  • FSM
  • L4OE
  • Placed in bottom sets
  • Poor attendance

I gave every pupil in Year 11 a mark out of 5, based on the risk factors above. 15 pupils had the maximum risk factor of 5 in English and maths. They became my target group. Here’s what their results looked like at the end of the project:

  • 12 of 15 pupils gained C or above in English, 10 in maths
  • 9 pupils got C or above in both

Now, to put that into context, at the start of the year 4 pupils were forecast to get a C in English, 3 in maths, and we were hoping that maybe 2 would get both.

  • 8% A*-C rise in English
  • 7% A*-C rise in maths
  • 12% rise in Basics measure
  • FSM gap narrowed by 17% in maths, 15% in English

So what did we do to get those results? Well, let’s start by looking at what we didn’t do:

  • Intervention
  • Peer coaching
  • Academic mentoring
  • Pastoral support
  • Rewards
  • Incentives
  • Increased parental engagement
  • Notify the pupils

The emphasis was not on intervention or coaching or peer mentoring or parental engagement. The pupils didn’t even know they’d been targeted. The focus was on one thing and one thing only: the quality of the teaching in the classroom. I did training with English and maths, looking only at three areas. Unlike in previous years, this time I went back to make sure the training had worked, to check that people understood it and knew how to implement the ideas.

So what made the difference. I was able to reflect back on the stuff that had worked despite my boy-friendly diversions. The stuff that had worked all along. These became my alternative list of strategies for making sure boys do well:

  1. Quality feedback that encouraged lots of repetitive practice in their areas of weakness
  • ‘live’ or ‘short’ marking
  • Onus on motivation of immediate improvement

Hattie and Timperley (2007)

The pupils were initially reluctant but by the end of the project they were asking their teacher to come over and give them immediate feedback and tell them there and then how to improve their work. The impact on their output in both subjects was significant. It really did make a difference.

2. Positive relationships based on effective behaviour management

My list included:

  • Depersonalise behaviour
  • Don’t hold grudges
  • Very clear expectations
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Let them know that you care (but not too much)
  • 80% pep talks/instilling a sense of belief
  • 20% letting them know when you’re disappointed
  • Stay calm at all times (apart from when you’re pretending to be really quite cross)

And now comes the most important thing. If there is one part of my talk today that I want you to remember it is this:

3. Really high expectations for all pupils

Jones and Myhill (2004) ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’

  • ‘tendency to associate boys with underachievement and girls with high achievement’
  • ‘80% of the teachers expected that boys and girls should get same results. This commitment to equal achievement, however, was not reflected in teachers’ perceptions…about classroom attitude and behaviour and ability within different areas of the curriculum.’

This study involved interviewing lots of teachers from across all different key stages. The first thing you notice is that 80% of teachers agreed in principal that there is no reason why boys and girls shouldn’t be able to achieve the same results. Now the very worrying thing about that is that 20% had presumably written off boys from the outset. The rest believed in the equality of opportunity. The problem was, there proved to be a disconnect between what they said they believed and their actions once they got into the classroom.

  • ‘Teachers give voice to a deficit model of male achievement. Boys are principally seen in terms of the things they cannot, will not and do not do. Girls are seen in terms of the things they have achieved and in terms of compliant behaviour.’

I’d like you to discuss this. It’s not an easy topic to address:

  • What implications does this have for your classroom practice?
  • Do teachers in your school ‘give voice to a deficit model of male achievement’?
  • How do you know?

I’d like to give you an example of how this might happen. Let’s call this the Top Set Effect. Imagine a head of faculty decides to set on potential rather than current ability? They sit down and discuss this with the teachers in the faculty. They all agree that morally (and for the sake of results) it’s the right thing to do. Let’s give boys going into their GCSE groups – especially FSM boys – more of a chance by putting them in the top set based on their KS2 score, not what they got at the end of Year 9.

Then six weeks later the HoF asks for any suggested set changes. What happens next? There are ten requests to move down pupils who are ‘not top set material’, who ‘don’t have the right work ethic’. Nine of them are boys. Seven are FSM.

This is when difficult conversations need to be had about high expectations. Not just saying it. Not just believing it. But actually doing it and showing it day-in, day-out in every single lesson. Because, believe me, boys are pretty good at quickly sussing out how much you really believe in them.

So, you now have my real boys’ engagement strategies. In  fact, can we drop the word ‘engagement’ along with the strategies themselves? Yet you might also be thinking: but couldn’t these ideas (1. quality feedback, 2. positive relationships, 3. very high expectations) also apply to girls? And my answer to that is yes. Of course they could. In future, I’d like to no longer be known as “the boy guy” and instead be “the guy who has some ideas about how best to teach pupils”. It’s less catchy but I think you’ll find it’s more helpful in the long run.

TLLeeds Slides Rethinking Boys Engagement M Roberts