Last year, I set myself the target of reading three education books by September 2019. One of these was Boys Don’t Try by secondary school English teachers Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts. The authors explore a range of issues that affect the modern teenage male student ranging from peer pressure, to pornography to mental health; they also engage with debates that could positively affect all students, such as mixed classes for all subjects. Littered throughout the book are a number of practical solutions to get the most out of ‘Bright But Lazy Boys’ (BBLBs).
Drawing on Wayne Martino’s research, Roberts draws attention to the glamorisation of physical effort and the rejection of mental effort prevalent among boys. A double-edge sword. There is a perception that school work, mental effort, is feminine. A view not at all helped by the Prime Minister recent use of ‘girly swot’ as an insult. The degree of these conscious choices is even more pronounced in disadvantaged students. A counter narrative is needed. Perhaps we need to show a plethora of examples of men, from myriad backgrounds, who exert mental effort and succeed, succeed at something. Perhaps, if male academic success is championed, the male rejection of mental effort would diminish. A literal poster-boy is needed. Of course, a celebration of the academic achievements of fellow teachers may also be a way in.
On the note of celebration, celebrate the occasions when BBLBs do step up. I do it quietly, mentioning it, almost, as an afterthought when I am talking to them. When I do it publically, it sometimes through a gold star (there is something deep within the human condition that desires that bit of sticky, shiny plastic). Alternatively, I couple praise with a ‘but’ – “That was a fantastic score, but it would have been more if you hadn’t randomly added a 4 in question six”.
However, what if we are somewhat to blame for some of this BBLB phenomenon? As Pinkett and Roberts highlight, the Pygmalion and Golem effects are real and have more than an essence of self-fulfilling prophecy about them. If we always see boys, who came in with high KS2 results and are not working to the level we expect, as lazy then we are already giving them the BBLB label. Perhaps we need to first ascertain if there is a barrier before we start up the label maker.
Furthermore, once the label has be attached, the behaviours and consequences become repetitive. It seems apparent that BBLBs will put in less effort, score lower on tests, and drop a set where, at times, expectations are lower. Remember, bottom sets are not just populated with the students who scored the lowest marks; other issues are at play. One solution would be to have a ‘top set’ mentality for all. Students need to work, put in mental effort, all of the time and for the whole lesson. Standards of presentation should be demanded and met. The idea of ‘just enough’ needs exterminating and replaced with a drive towards perfection. This drive should be made as pleasant as possible, with as many pit-stops as required, but be relentless, with every student on the bus. None of this is new, revolutionary, but does warrant repetition. Ultimately,
Teach boys in exactly the same way as you teach girls. High challenge. High expectations. No gimmicks. No shortcuts. P. 21.