Boys Will Be Boys – If You Let Them

Boys read. But not always what school provides.

Boys are more emotional than girls. So thinks Tony Little, the head of Eton school, who in a highly controversial interview this week, also claims that boys are being failed by a state education system which treats them the same as girls. Boys, he insists, are wired differently from girls: they are more competitive, need to be physically active and are incapable of multi-tasking. For that reason, Little argues, boys need to be taught differently, and the result of our failure to do so is a nationwide problem with disaffected teenage boys. Interestingly, the head of Britain’s most prestigious, and most expensive, single-sex school has been a passionate advocate of boys and girls being taught together, but he also believes that unless we take account of the differences between the sexes, many boys will continue to be labelled disruptive and fail to achieve their true potential.

Make of Tony Little’s comments what you will, but if we think about the issue purely in terms of reading engagement, I believe that many of our boys are failed by an inherent institutional bias. The popular misconception is that boys, generally speaking, are reluctant readers. I’m not convinced. I have a notion that the problem is more about the choice of texts than it is about the reader. It’s hardly a scientific study, but in my experience as a secondary English teacher, when given a free choice of texts, girls would normally opt for a novel, while boys more often than not would choose non-fiction texts. There were of course exceptions to the rule. The whole-class texts they studied did not reflect that balance however, consisting almost entirely of works of fiction. To compound the problem, in cash-strapped schools and departments, many of the texts were significantly outdated and often presented outdated gender stereotypes.

There was a solution to the problem. Occasionally, the common experience of a single text by a whole class is an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, but equally there is no reason why we should assume that in all circumstances a single text will be appropriate for twenty or thirty young people simply because they happen to be the same age and in the same room. A common outcome can be achieved by setting the same task for different texts. It’s more appropriate, it saves money and it proves that sometimes discrimination can be positive.


4 thoughts on “Boys Will Be Boys – If You Let Them

  1. One of the things that concerned me when Gareth Malone went into school to prove that boys needed different teaching was the lumping of all boys together. I am sure that there were some girls who needed to run around and have competition and some boys who would have liked to stay in the classroom.
    Are boys really more sensitive than girls or do we just think that because they are boys and hide their sensitivity in different ways to girls we feel we needn’t take their feelings into account.
    It is a rare experience when a single text means something to everyone even in primary school. That is why as teachers we need to read children’s fiction so that we can suggest other books that children might try and so that we can offer as wide a range of texts as possible in teaching time.
    What Gareth Malone did show was listening to the boys and how many of them were desperate to be better readers. I can’t help but ask whether anyone else knew how they felt.
    Some of the best guided reading sessions are where children bring their own text to the session and we discuss common themes, similarities and differences. It places me in the position as a learner and listener as I frequently know nothing about the texts some of the children choose.
    Great post Bill

  2. Thanks Joy. It’s a very complex issue, and I realise I haven’t even started to do it justice in those few paragraphs. However, I feel that it is a discussion people often shy away from when in fact it needs to be aired. I agree with you completely that it would be wrong to generalise about boys or girls – although Tony Little seemed quite happy to do it! My main concern is more to do with the fact that there is not a big enough range of texts STUDIED in classrooms (as opposed to being simply made available)and that in English classrooms especially we often don’t get beyond novels, plays and poems.Like your observations about children and their own texts.


  3. Pingback: Mina’s views on school • Reading Matters

  4. Pingback: Here Come the Boys « Bill Boyd – The Literacy Adviser

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