Writing – do we have to accept that boys will be boys?

I had a great visit this week to King’s Meadow Primary School in Haddington. At the beginning of my visit I had a chat with Headteacher Donald McGillivray about boy’s writing. Donald has done a fascinating analysis of boys’ attainment across the school and the statistics show that boys’ writing is of a much lower standard than girls’ writing – in what is a very high performing school. This situation is matched in most schools in East Lothian.

As I visited classes around the school I concentrated on classes which were being taught language. As it happened the classes were all working on spelling -which was being taught in a very engaging and imaginative manner -but I managed to get a chance to talk to most of the teachers and asked them about why boys were underperforming in writing. The concensus was that boys need tasks which are related to a context and that these tasks must challenge and engage their imagination. For me it demonstrated once again that it is the learning task which teachers select that holds the secret to improving learning – the challenge for us is to experiment with and work out the kind of tasks that will lead to a sustained improvement in boys writing. As it stands at the moment boys are behind girls by between 15-20% so the risk is certainly worth taking.

I came across this video from teachers.tv which showed a class where boys had closed the gap on girls. The key points  were:

  • Speaking and listening form a solid foundation for written work
  • Multimedia techniques ease reluctant students into writing
  • Role-play encourages boys to participate

One of the main things to emerge for me when I was speaking to Donald McGilliivray is one that Steven Heppell had been referring to last week and which I’d repeated at our Headteachers’ Conference is that the answers lie in our own hands and in our own schools. We need to move away from the idea that we will resolve problems such as boys writing by buying a package, training all our teachers and then expecting them to implement the programme. The reality is that all our schools are different and what might work in one school would not necessarily work in another. I also believe that such an approach only serves to foster a dependency culture which is anti-professional and ultimately self defeating, as teachers feel  deskilled and are not encouraged to reflect upon and take responsibility for their own practice.

I’d much rather see a school work out some key principles which would guide the type of learning experiences which teachers would provide for boys, then evaluate the success of these approaches then discuss, share and develop these ideas within schools, within clusters and within the authority.

Last thought – if we could close the gap between girls and boys in respect to writing we would – in a single act – raise the levels of attainment in East Lothian by an unprecedented amount, with all the corresponding impact that such a lift would have on children’s life chances.

4 thoughts on “Writing – do we have to accept that boys will be boys?

  1. Yes, boys are boys and are different from girls not least in the topics that fire their interest and imagination for writing. In my last class I got all the children to provide a topic for a daily 5min writing exercise (daily dash). Generally the girls chose “safe” topics such as best friends, favourite hobbies etc. On the other hand, boys generally wanted to write about favourite football teams or wars/battles etc. While the girls topics could be tackled by all, the boys topics would have been difficult for some of the girls to attempt and the impression I have been given is that their subject matter would generally not be considered suitable to encourage.
    Do we need to broaden our view of what is acceptable subject matter if it improves boys writing? Darren Shans vampire novels for example are best sellers for young adolescents.

  2. If you want to see all the things you talk about illustrated you need look no further than Tim Rylands – what an inspirational theme of activities to work with, using virtual worlds (technology & multimedia) to get students to say what they see and feel and use the ‘virtualness’ of the world to get away from the dour realities of day-to-day language of a young lad at school. Have a search on YouTube and loads of things turn up. This is one of my favourites:

  3. I’m sorry, as the mother of a boy and as a teacher, I have to share with you how much I hate to hear phrases like ‘boys are boys’ or ‘he’s a typical boy’ (what is that anyway?). Dave you seem top working on the assumption that all boys will be stimulated by football, wars or battles – I think not. Equally all girls, in my experience of being a mother of a daughter and a teacher, do not choose the safe subjects. Many female writers have offered interesting perspectives on war. I don’t think this is an area to generalsie in, this is a mind set that seems to be in danger of further stereotyping boys and girls. Let me be clear about where I’m coming from, I think that boys and girls equally deserve to be presented with stimulating, engaing and varied contexts for writing and be shoved right out of their safe and familiar comfort zones whether that be bunny rabbit families or bloody battles. We need to examine our society, attitudes and beliefs to question why this gap has opened. I don’t think girls should be allowed to mark time waiting for the boys to catch up. Imagine what would happen if we viewed all children as individuals with differing interests and needs and thought they all had the right and the ability to improve.

  4. Shirley

    Thanks for a great comment. However, it would appear from results across East Lothian that boys significantly underperform in relation to girls in writing. We can therefore generalise that there is an issue. I totally agree that we cannot do anything which would hold back or discrimate against girls. It sounds to me like you should be joining the group that we intend to set up to establish some guidelines for teaching writing – which teachers could use in a differentiated manner. Interested?

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