Winners and Losers

Like most of the population I have been caught up in Olympic fever since last weekend’s spectacular and bizarre opening ceremony. I grew up on Olympic dreams and one of my boyhood heroes was the Australian distance runner Ron Clarke. The games have changed dramatically over the years of course, and nowadays stories of corruption, corporate greed and political manipulation dominate the headlines as much as sporting achievement. It has been interesting to follow events with one eye on my Twitter stream, where commentators are split roughly down the middle between those who are fanatically enthusiastic and those who are pretty cynical about sport in general, and the Olympics in particular.

The BBC’s animated Olympics trailer. One of the more inventive products of London 2012.

There is one question though which intrigues me more than any other, and I think it applies as much to education as it does to sport. I was listening to BBC Radio 4 when I heard the UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt say something along the lines of – and I paraphrase since I can’t remember his exact words – ‘Sport is brutal. There are only winners and losers.’ My immediate reaction was ‘So anyone who ‘wins’ a silver medal is a loser’? The same question came back to me as I watched the delight on the faces of the British men’s gymnastics team receiving their bronze medals yesterday. Here were five young men, honest, modest and very unassuming if televisual appearances were anything to go by, who had dedicated endless hours of hard work to perfecting their hugely complex and balletic routines, and here was the payback. The recognition. The reward. Who would have dared describe them as ‘losers’?

The previous evening, the swimmer Rebecca Adlington was also winning a bronze medal, significantly in a faster time than she swam to win the gold in Bejing four years ago. Was she a winner this time around, or just one of the losers? I think by now you know my answer to the question, and the key factor for me is in the idea of improvement, of constant striving for that personal best. In education, as in sport, there are those who scoff at the notion that young people can all be winners. Perhaps their own experiences have taught them that this is how it has to be. You’ll recognise them: they are the ones who talk about ‘bright kids’ and ‘stupid kids’, who believe that intelligence is fixed and can’t be improved, who like tests which ‘separate the sheep from the goats’ because real life is like that. When you meet them – and you will – don’t nod politely in agreement. Put up a challenge. We are all learning, some at a faster pace than others.

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Addressing the Gender Imbalance

In the immediate aftermath of my previous blogpost on how to engage boys in reading, I discovered two very interesting items related to the topic of gender imbalance in the classroom. The first was a report by the Teaching Agency which suggests that the number of men training to be primary teachers in England has increased by more than 50 percent in the last four years, surely a figure to be welcomed by everyone with an interest in education and schools. The second was this TED talk by Ali Carr-Chellman on how to engage boys through the use of gaming in the classroom. Thanks to Fernando for bringing it to my attention via the Transmedia and Education group on Facebook.

A former colleague and fellow DHT of mine used to maintain that many of the problems in schools at the end of the 20th Century had been caused by what he described as the ‘feminisation’ of education. I disagreed with him entirely, and I still do. The issue for me is not that we should treat boys very differently from girls, but that the curriculum should more accurately reflect the broad range of interests and passions which exist in the world, and that the range of texts with which teachers and students engage in the classroom should be much broader than it often is. As always, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Here Come the Boys

My goodness. Boys. We don’t quite know what to do with them. As recently as February this year the What Kids Are Reading 2012 report by Professor Keith Topping found that the level of difficulty of the books read by boys was no longer lower than that of the girls, whereas The Boys’ Reading Commission findings published this week reveal that three out of four (76%) UK schools are concerned about boys’ underachievement in reading. Last year an estimated 60,000 boys failed to reach the expected level in reading at age 11.

The all-party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission’s report compiled by the National Literacy Trust reveals that the “reading gender gap” is widening and says action needs to be taken in homes, schools and communities, with recommendations including boys having weekly access to male reading role models.

The problem with politicians and survey findings of course is that a) they always want action but have no idea what it should be, b) they want a quick fix when it almost never exists, and c) they usually believe the solution lies in introducing a new test, or the revision of an old test, or a compulsory ‘reading hour’ or some such, all of which are only likely to compound the problem.

My own experiences over a long number of years as a reader, a father and an English teacher lead me to believe that the problem is not so clear-cut as the figures suggest, but nonetheless there are some measures which can sensibly be taken to encourage reading, especially among boys.

Finding Positive Role Models

One of the more constructive suggestions of the Commission’s report is that boys need strong male role models. There is no escaping the fact that most teachers, especially in the primary sector, are women, and many boys have no positive male role models in their lives. Schools should go out of their way to find strong male readers in the community, whether they are parents, local sportsmen, community artists or whatever, and invite them to conduct reading sessions in school. I saw a suggestion on Twitter recently that men should consider volunteering to read to boys in their local school, but the initiative has to come from the school. Having created an ethos where adult males seeking involvement in their local school are often treated with suspicion, we need to take steps to redress the balance.

The Teacher as Learner/Reader

Teachers – male and female – must realise that first and foremost they themselves have to be a reader and a role model. Too often I meet teachers who have hardly picked up a book since they graduated from college or university. They should be immersed in books and reading, and it should be a frequent topic for discussion. This means that, apart from adult fiction and current literature relating to their own professional development, they should constantly be seeking out and reading books relating to the age group for which they have responsibility. This will often mean reading material which would not necessarily have been their own choice by instinct.

To understand how important this is, and how to make it happen, one text which should be on every teacher’s list is The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

Finding the Right Materials

In my experience, when it comes to reading in schools, the emphasis is firmly on the reading of fiction. There needs to be much more of a balance. While fiction of course is important in so many ways, boys often favour non-fiction, and given a choice when visiting the library will overwhelmingly go for factual material, yet when it comes to the serious study of texts in the classroom, fiction wins out every time. We need to provide good quality non-fiction material, including biography, which will engage those who demand the facts!. Teachers should also consider seriously the place of comic books and graphic novels, both of which play an important part in in the development of boys’ reading but are often ignored, or even more bizarrely dismissed, as an inferior form of storytelling. Speaking as an adult male reader, my own preference is to read fiction and non-fiction texts more or less alternately.

(see Literacy Adviser book lists for 10-14 year olds here https://literacyadviser.wordpress.com/books-10-14/fiction-10-14/)

Embracing New Technologies

While many of us still prefer to pick up a paper book, especially when it is a picture book or one that has particular aesthetic appeal, new technologies have resulted in a revival of interest in reading for many adults, and the advent of the eReader presents new opportunities for a new generation. Boys love gadgets, so why not take advantage of these new technologies to introduce them to texts which they might otherwise ignore. If you can’t afford a class set of Kindles or iPads, buy one or two and direct them specifically at those boys who don’t think reading is cool but think that machines are. The more gadgetry the better. Repeat after me – playing with gadgets and reading are not mutually exclusive.

Timing is All

The thing about reading is that there is a time and a place, and that time and place is different for every individual. I have followed some very interesting discussions recently on the blogosphere on the place of silent reading in the classroom, the pros and cons, the optimal amount of time to spend and so on (see Kenny Pieper http://justtryingtobebetter.com/ and David Didau http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/07/01/some-thoughts-on-silent-reading/ in particular) This is a hugely complex issue depending on so many variables, including those already mentioned above. One thing of which I am fairly certain, and that is we are too often asking young people – especially boys – to read at the wrong time, a time which suits us rather than them. Silent reading is something which requires full attention and the right conditions, which are extremely difficult to replicate in a classroom full of tightly-packed bodies. Reading aloud, when done well and with the right texts, can motivate and engage even the most reluctant reader, but moving them from there to reading willingly on their own is a different matter. Another factor which is often overlooked, is that most boys need to be moving around and doing something physical before turning to more cerebral matters. I know that most of my reading is done after exercise, and not before it, when I find it more difficult to concentrate. Perhaps there is something to be learned here by anyone planning a learning timetable.

Reading Doesn’t Have to Involve Writing

One of the surest ways to kill an interest in reading, especially among boys, is to insist that every time someone reads a book they have to write a review, or a ‘critical evaluation’. To develop a genuine love of reading, young people need to be encouraged to TALK about books, read aloud and listen to extracts from the best writers, and make recommendations to each other. If you do want them to be writing about their reading, make it less formal and with a real purpose, such as a discussion forum in the form of a class blog or wiki.

(see for example Kenny Pieper’s 1B2’s Bookworms Blog)

The Library as the Beating Heart of the School

The school library should be the learning hub from which all else emanates, the librarian a thorough professional and integral part of the learning team, not simply someone who issues books and collects fines. Too often, when budget cuts are being considered, it is the library which suffers first. In too many schools restrictive practices reinforce the notion that reading is something for a privileged elite, and boys are made less welcome because they are seen as boisterous and ill-disciplined. This can be witnessed most often when a teacher and/or librarian expects a prolonged period of silent reading without first cultivating the environment for this to happen. A more productive use of library time is to explore, discuss books and work with individuals to find the right connections – the right book at the right time – a key role of the teacher/librarian.

Finally, a word of advice to politicians. The world moves on, times change. Perhaps it’s time for you to revise and expand your definition of ‘reading’ to include all forms of reading, especially as it relates to moving image, transmedia and web-based texts. Who knows, when you do this you might discover that in fact there isn’t such a gender gap after all

Read previous post Boys Will Be Boys here.