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'You can't read a book when you're on a bike': gender and achievement in the middle years.

Cathie Holden

University of Exeter
Email:
C.E.Holden@ex.ac.uk

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, September 7-10 2000

There has been much debate about the underachievement of boys, fuelled by continuing evidence that shows girls achieving better than boys in most exams, boys continuing to dominate special needs education and school exclusions. Various theories have emerged, with boys' poor performance being attributed to a changing economic infrastructure, to the results of poor parenting or to innate biological differences where, for example, they are perceived as being less able than girls to learn language. The study reported on here contributes to this debate by presenting the findings from a research project in a pyramid of schools where pupils from Year 1 to Year 11 and their teachers were interviewed about their perceptions and attitudes to learning and gender and were observed in the classroom. While the study has much to say about raising standards and improving classroom practice for all pupils, there is a specific focus on underachieving boys and on literacy. This paper presents data on the perceptions of children in years 4 and 5. Findings relating to the Early Years children and their teachers are reported in Wood (2000) and data on patterns of interaction and response in Years 1 to 8 in Myhill (2000).

Introduction: giving children a voice

Central to this research is a belief in the importance of the voice of the child. Recent researchers in the school improvement field have argued that children are 'expert witnesses' (Rudduck and Flutter 2000;82) and that we ignore what they have to say about the classroom at our peril (Pollard, Theissen and Filer, 1997). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that children have a right to be listened to, to have their opinions taken into account and to participate in decision making as it affects them. This offers a principled framework within which educators should act, if the rights of children are to be respected (Sinclair Taylor 2000). To deny children these rights not only ignores a universally agreed set of principles, it also edits out the voice and perspectives of the very customers whose educational experiences we are seeking to improve. This is the equivalent of an 'own goal' as young people have much to say about 'the conditions of learning at school, how regimes and relationships shape their sense of status as individual learners and as members of the community and, consequently, affect their sense of commitment to learning in school' (Rudduck and Flutter 2000: 76). Such a commitment to understanding children's experiences means that we must accept children as competent reporters of their own experiences, must take them seriously and put their views at the centre of analysis, working for them, rather than on them (Mayall, 1996, cited in France, Bendelow and Williams 2000, original italics).

Gender and underachievement: perspectives from research

The views of children from whom we shall hear need to be set in the context of national concerns. This study on gender and achievement has arisen out of concern about boys' attainment in formalised testing situations. For the last few years girls have consistently done better than boys in GCSE English and Key Stage 2 SATs results in 1999 showed 46% of boys achieving a level 4 in writing compared to 61% of girls. 'The quality of work and rate of progress in writing remains worryingly low, particularly among boys', OFSTED concluded (OFSTED 1999). This poor performance relates to continuing concerns about working class boys' academic achievement, disaffection and the possible social consequences (Warren, 2000).

Various research (OFSTED 1996, Pickering 1997) has indicated that teachers have lower expectations of boys than girls: they rate boys' ability to concentrate, their self esteem and their social skills as lower than girls and are likely to discipline boys more harshly than girls. Feiler and Webster (1999) suggest that teachers make judgements about literacy outcomes before children start school, and stick to these predictions once made. 'There is evidence that we tend to cling to our original perceptions despite the accruing of contradictory factors' (Feiler and Webster, 1999;357). Evidence from the classroom shows that boys dominate classroom interaction more than girls, and are evaluated more, both positively and negatively (Howe 1997, in Arnot, Gray, James and Rudduck 1998).

With specific reference to English, OFSTED claims that boys have a narrow experience of fiction, that the content of their writing is predictable and that they have problems with the more affective aspects of English. Girls, the report says, read more fiction and write at greater length (OFSTED 1993). Brown (1994) also found the content of boys' stories to be stereotyped and suggests that boys become less committed to writing as they get older, with writing being seen as passive, reflective and therefore female. Reading too, seems to drop off as boys enter secondary school (Hall and Coles 1997, Lloyd 1999) although Hall and Coles question the prevailing notion that boys do not enjoy fiction as the respondents in their large survey clearly enjoyed a range of horror, adventure and football books. Likewise Myhill (1999) found that the similarities between boys and girls with regard to their preferences for different aspects of English teaching, were greater than their differences.

Academic achievement has long been discussed in relation to pupil behaviour. The pressure on boys to conform to a notion of masculinity which is unfemale, active and 'cool' is universally acknowledged, and thought to now start in the primary school rather than being an adolescent phenomenon (Jordan 1995, Millard 1997). Further, Jackson argues that some boys 'actively participate in their own underachievement by rejecting the school approved middle class culture, associating it with inferior wimpishness' (Jackson 1998;80). Theories as to why this might be abound, ranging from a belief in biological differences, to the pressures of abstract socialising processes, deficit models of the family or changing economic infrastructures (Warren, 2000). Thus underachievement in English is either genetic (boys being less able at language), cultural (as a result of social conditioning) or subject specific (where English is seen as 'feminine' because it is literature based and values personal and affective responses) (Reynolds 1995).

The study

Concerned by national reports of boys' underachievement, and by school statistics which pointed to such underachievement in their own schools, a schools' pyramid (a High School with its three feeder Middle schools, and their twelve feeder First schools) commissioned a team of researchers at Exeter University to design and conduct a research study into the issue within the schools' pyramid. The overarching research question which the schools wanted to address was the very broad one of why boys underachieve. Taking this as the starting point, the study sought to investigate

a) teachers' perceptions of

* the roots of under-achievement

* boys' and girls' achievements in the curriculum (especially literacy)

* boys' and girls' preferred learning styles and attitudes to learning

b) pupils' perceptions of

* the curriculum, especially the literacy curriculum,

* their preferred teaching and learning styles

* their perceptions of the differences in achievement or behaviour of boys and girls

c) the patterns of interaction and response in the classroom, looking specifically at  

participation, off-task behaviour and the frequency and nature of interactions between teachers and children

An interpretative paradigm was adopted which permitted the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data in context, and which allowed the stakeholders, both teachers and children, to have a voice. The research design involved interviews with the focus children and their teacher, and classroom observation. Triangulation was achieved by asking teachers and children similar questions and by classroom observation which provided statistical and qualitative data on the same constructs. The classroom observation episodes used a structured observation schedule, noting the response and interaction patterns of the focus children during both whole class teaching and during individual or group work. In addition, qualitative field notes were written during the observation period.

The schools in the pyramid were both rural and urban, including some very small rural First schools. Although the area is predominantly white, the schools covered a range of socio-economic backgrounds, with some schools largely middle class, whilst others drew from a less advantaged catchment. In all, 36 classes were sampled, six classes each in years 1, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 10. In each class four children were identified as the focus for classroom observation and for interview. These four children comprised a high achieving boy and girl, and an underachieving boy and girl. The class teacher for each class observed was interviewed, with additional interviews with other relevant personnel such as the literacy co-ordinator or the year head. A total of 41 teaching sessions were observed and 144 children and 36 teachers were interviewed.

Findings

Teachers' perceptions of gender and attitudes to teaching and learning

The teachers of the Year 4 and 5 focus children firmly believed that gender identity, and particularly boys' understanding of what it is to be masculine, is culturally and socially determined outside the school. The Year 4 teachers saw boys' underachievement as directly linked to poor behaviour, whereas Year 5 teachers (where the children were new to the school) presented a picture of underachieving boys 'switching off' or disengaging.

Reasons cited for boys' underachievement in English were poor writing skills, an inability to settle, poor behaviour and an unsupportive home background. Others cited the physically active nature of boys which prevented them from developing good reading habits. As one said, 'you can't read a book when you're on a bike'. Underachieving girls were more likely to be seen as having a 'poor attitude' and a lack of confidence. Boys in general were seen as 'outgoing', 'disruptive' and 'needing a challenge' whereas girls were 'willing' and 'wanting to please'. Boys received far fewer positive descriptions although there was a view espoused by some teachers that they were more prepared than girls to take risks, to want to find out 'the wider view' of things and to be more divergent in their thinking. This contrasts with a view of girls as compliant, conforming and industrious but tending to the pedestrian. These findings accord with those reported by Wood (2000) concerning the perceptions and expectations of the Year 1 teachers.

Teachers were asked about the learning styles preferred by boys and girls. Whilst some thought that boys and girls learnt in different ways, the strategies mentioned usually related to the need to motivate boys and keep them on task. Several said that boys learnt best through active, lively approaches as they needed 'more sparkle and fun in their learning'. Others added that boys liked 'investigative work', information technology, music, PE and drama. They were seen as responding well to a sense of humour and a competitive element. A Year 5 teacher commented that they 'definitely prefer short, structured tasks with a very hands-on input'. Girls, on the other hand, were thought to like 'longer, open-ended tasks', creative activities, dance, drama and personal and social education. With specific regard to English, the teachers said boys preferred analytical activities, oral discussions and non-fiction writing whereas girls preferred story writing, extended writing and private reading. Teachers considered that boys did not like writing in general and that girls did not like problem-solving investigations or unfinished tasks. It is worth noting that a small number of teachers regarded the individuality of each child as the over-riding determinant, and rejected the idea of gender difference.

Strategies that appeal to boys

Oral not written (2)

Short bursts (3)

Active learning (2)

Hands on

Clear rules and guidance (2)

Direct and decisive

Structure, clear aims (2)

More variety

More discipline

More pace

Having a competitive element

Opportunities to move and talk

More motivation

Strategies that appeal to girls

Longer tasks (3)

Open-ended (2)

Creative

Praise

Use of peer talk to solve problems

 

Activities that appeal to boys

Computers and ICT (3)

Problem solving and investigations (2)

Working with a friend

Analytical activities

Non fiction writing

Games, PE, drama, music

Activities that appeal to girls

Story writing

Longer reading times

Extended writing tasks

Diagrams and drawing

Activities that do not appeal to boys

Writing (3)

Poetry

Reading

Woolly open ended questions

Activities that do not appeal to girls

Problem solving and investigations

Ones they don't finish

Table 1: Teachers' perceptions of strategies and activities that appeal to Year 4 and Year 5 (n=12)

Table 1 summarises the comments from Year 4 and 5 teachers. It is interesting to note that there are many more suggestions for boys than girls. There is an assumption that girls will accept most teaching styles, whereas boys may need particular strategies to motivate them. As one teacher said, 'girls don't need strategies'.

Three key issues emerge from the teacher interviews:

a) the different attitudes (and behaviour) thought to be exhibited by boys and girls

b) the different strategies and learning styles thought to be appropriate to boys and girls

c) the different approaches to English thought to be appropriate to boys and girls

The children's views will be reported under these headings to enable comparison and corroboration of this data.

Children's perspectives

This paper draws on interviews with 48 Year 4 and 5 children: twelve underachieving boys, twelve underachieving girls, twelve high achieving boys and twelve high achieving girls. The children were interviewed in pairs (high achievers together, under achievers together) and tape recorded with their permission. All names have been changed. As one of the purposes of this study was to find out the different perspectives of high achievers and underachievers (as well as gender differences) we hear from the high achievers then the underachievers on each issue, with gender differences noted alongside.

Children's perspectives on the different attitudes (and behaviour) exhibited by boys and girls

What is evident from the children's interviews is that they have a good understanding of their own learning and of the behaviour exhibited by both sexes. The high achieving girls and boys speak of the boys as the ones who have the lowest tolerance for 'sitting and listening'. Nicky explains that 'the boys fidget too much because they don't want to listen to something that they don't want to listen to'. Kevin agrees that 'boys lose their attention, get more bored more quickly at work, whereas girls keep their concentration a little bit longer'. However, he goes on to suggest that 'boys listen to the important bits.' A few of the high achieving boys express their frustration at the boys who 'muck about'. Adam says the problem is 'they want to be tough and not listen because they think they're too clever to listen and actually learn'.

Comments from the underachievers are in a similar vein. May maintains that 'girls learn better than boys,' because girls 'concentrate more, boys like, they talk and make jokes and stuff'. Darren, however, says that 'when the boys are naughty, like flicking rubbers at people, I think when they do it they still get the same amount of work done'. He goes on to suggest that 'if it was a really boring piece of work which we'd rather not be doing, then we'd just do something that we would rather be doing than that piece of work'. Kate and Douglas, interviewed together, discuss the differences. Kate says that 'girls like mostly learning by writing and reading and actually doing things and boys like, well boys like doing things but they don't like writing'. Douglas disagrees and says 'I like writing stories'. Kate persists: 'and they never listen much in literacy'. Douglas retorts 'that isn't true, some do, I don't, but some do'. Douglas likes to think that there are boys that listen, but not that he is one of them. Darren and Imogen shed more light on peer group pressure to conform. Imogen says 'I don't want to be like at the bottom of the class, I want to be medium or upper', to which Darren replies 'you're not teased if you're medium are you' .

There is an awareness amongst these Year 4 and 5 children of peer group pressure and image and that the pressures may be different for boys and girls. It could be argued that boys like to be seen as having a healthy disinterest in education but as succeeding any way. On the other hand some of these comments may indicate a growing attitude amongst boys that is not necessarily anti-school but anti-effort.

As well as talking about their own attitudes to learning, the children have a great deal to say about the attitudes of their teachers towards them. There is a general consensus among the high achievers that boys are told off more, but some see this as justified because of their 'bad behaviour'. Others feel that boys receive an unfair amount of negative treatment. Sue says that it depends on the teacher; most teachers treat them the same but 'we've got ones like Miss M and Mr T, they always blame things on the boys not the girls'. Christine explains that this is because 'people don't expect girls to be naughty...girls get away with being naughty more'. Nicky sees boys' behaviour and teachers' treatment of them as linked:

Because the boys don't listen as much the teachers pick on them when it comes to really difficult questions. And all the girls put their hands up and they (the teachers) just pick on them (the boys) because they don't know the answer because they weren't listening.

The boy interviewed with her says plaintively, 'but sometimes we are!' indicating what may be at the heart of the problem. Boys may be less focused than girls some of the time, but feel they are seen as off-task or badly behaved all of the time. Karl admits that girls are better behaved but says 'the boys are not always given a chance to say what they want to say'. A defensive attitude emerges in the attitude of some of the boys in Year 5, exemplified by Kevin who says 'boys get themselves into trouble more than girls do...it's just what boys do... they just like getting themselves into trouble and they don't really care if they get told off'. He counts himself as one of those boys and as such is an example of a high achieving boy buying into the macho culture.

The underachieving boys seem especially conscious of the negative treatment of boys. One such, Jacob, admits that some boys behave worse than girls, including himself. 'Some of them do want to be silly and fiddle with things... like me' he says, but then goes on to say that nonetheless, 'they blame boys for everything but not really girls'. For some it is not so much negative treatment of boys, as teachers preferring girls. Some of the boys see the girls as 'teachers' pets' and Ruth agrees, saying 'it's just the way they smile at girls and talk softly'.

In summary, the teachers thought boys' poor behaviour was culturally determined outside the school and directly linked to underachievement. The children indicate that many of the pressures to be 'medium' come from within the classroom and are of their own making. They are aware of the poor behaviour of some boys but feel that they are not always as bad as teachers make out, and not always treated fairly. There are indications of increasing resentment and defensive attitudes as children grow older.

Children's perspectives on learning styles, strategies and preferred subjects

The teachers' comments indicated that they thought boys learnt best through active, lively approaches and that they liked 'investigative work', information technology, music, PE and drama. The teaching strategies and curriculum offered in school were thought to suit girls, who were seen as enjoying in particular creative activities, dance, drama and personal and social education.

Comments from the high achievers corroborate some of the teachers' views. A picture emerges of high achievers who enjoy all aspects of school, especially in Year 4. Jane says 'I haven't got anything I don't like about school' and Robin cites enjoying maths lessons as well as his lunchtime activities of gymnastics, recorders, violin and maths club. However Table 2 indicates that in fact the children enjoy a wider range of subjects than the teachers expect, with little gender difference in some areas.

 

Boys

Girls

Total

Maths

4

4

8

Art

2

6

8

English/writing

5

2

7

PE and Games

5

2

7

D.T.

3

2

5

Science

1

3

4

History

1

1

2

Computers/ICT

1

1

2

Geography

1

1

2

Science

0

1

1

RE

0

1

1

Table 2: Curriculum areas enjoyed by Yr. 4 and 5 high achievers (n=24)

Maths is popular with both sexes, while art is particularly enjoyed by girls and English and PE/games by boys. Kaley says she likes 'learning art and how we can do different textures... and I like learning about history and going back in time and talking about what they did'. Emily enjoys maths but expresses some frustration as 'sometimes the teacher repeats it so the people who weren't listening listen more and it gets a bit boring'. Of the five boys who like English, two mention the literacy hour while the other three like writing imaginative stories. Adam says he likes creative writing but 'sometimes I don't like literacy... because of the sitting down and listening to it all'. Karl says he likes 'maths, English and especially history' as he is likes learning about 'really far back in time....especially dinosaurs'.

Overall their comments indicate that these high achieving boys and girls enjoy lessons where they can talk to each other, work in groups or pairs and 'do' rather than just sit and listen. They like teachers who are 'fun' but 'can keep control'.

 

Boys

Girls

Total

Art

5

5

10

Maths

4

5

9

PE and Games

3

3

6

History

4

1

5

Science

3

1

4

DDT

2

1

3

ITC

1

1

2

Music

1

1

2

Humanities

0

1

1

English

0

1

1

Table 3: Curriculum areas enjoyed by Yr. 4 and 5 under achievers (n=24).

What is noticeable here is the popularity of both maths, art and PE with both sexes, and the mention of history by one-third of the underachieving boys. English, which had been cited by seven of the high achievers, is only mentioned by one under achieving girl. Roger says he prefers lessons where 'you don't have to write as much' and Jacob likes art 'because I'm very good at drawing'. . Tara likes 'designing the pond.. and science'. The popularity of maths may be attributable to the practical approaches advocated in the numeracy hour. History is enjoyed by these underachieving boys especially when it is brought to life in some way, and their comments may be an indicator of their academic potential. Mark says 'I'm into history' and gives a highly technical description of dinosaurs' teeth and claws and Eddie talks about his class's trip to a Roman museum. 'You get to... see a Celtic and Roman sword, but the Celtic's sword's harder to see because it's covered with mud but the Roman sword's kind of in a cabinet and you can actually touch bones because they're fake, and you have to sort them into groups of materials, like snail shells and all that'.

It seems that curriculum areas which are more active or genuinely engage the imagination are popular with both boys and girls. As with the high achievers, these children enjoy lessons where there is an element of fun and variety. Boys add that a good lesson should be interesting and exciting, while girls suggest it should be imaginative and not boring.

In contrast to the teachers' beliefs, these findings indicate that all children prefer active learning styles, like work which uses the imagination, and that most subjects are equally enjoyed by boys and girls. If we are to harness this enthusiasm and avoid the disaffection and disengagement found in some of the Year 8 pupils in this study, there may be messages about the need to re-think both teaching styles and curriculum content. More active learning styles may benefit some of the under achievers in particular, and it may be timely to reassess the place of creative writing, history, the creative arts and PE in the primary curriculum.

Children's perspectives on English

a) reading

The majority of the high achievers find reading easy, although the Year 4s are more enthusiastic than the Year 5s. None of the Year 5 boys claimed to read a lot, although Scott said he enjoyed reading. Table 4 shows the books mentioned by the children.

Boys

Girls

Horrible Histories

Harry Potter (3)

Enid Blyton

Roald Dahl (2)

Goosebumps

Redwall series

Pat Hutchins

Willard Price

Non-fiction (2)

Mystery /crime (2)

Football books (2)

Science fiction (2)

Horrible Histories (3)

Harry Potter

Enid Blyton

Roald Dahl

Goosebumps

What Katy did

Where's Wally

Animal Ark

Jacqueline Wilson (2)

Judy Blume

Bel Mooney

School Mini-mysteries

Sleep Over Club

Scary books (2)

Animal books

Mystery stories (2)

Myths

Table 4: Reading preferences of Year 4 and 5 high achievers (n=24)

The similarities in reading taste between boys and girls are more striking than their differences. In general the genres of horror and fantasy are popular with both sexes and the mixed fact/fiction genre of the Horrible History series is also popular. It is often the humour in this series which appeals. Girls are more likely to read animal stories and boys are more likely to read non fiction but there is little evidence of a strong fact/fiction divide on gender grounds. Indeed when talking about books it is fiction which fires the enthusiasm of both boys and girls. Jane likes 'exciting animal books with jungles' and Karl likes 'longer stories and ... the ones with quite a lot of action in them'. Likewise Adam likes 'thick books... where they go to the Amazon and have lots of adventures'.

The under achievers are more ambivalent in their attitude to reading, with girls tending to be more positive than boys. Some find reading easy, some say it depends on the book. Jacob (Year 4) says 'some books have really hard words you haven't heard of before, like as in adult books, 'cos some of us read adult books and I've had a go.. it's quite hard'. Geoff expands on this:

Some books are easy and some books are kind of hard and I don't really want to read them, because either they're too boring or they've got too many hard words and I don't know what they mean or anything.

Boys

Girls

Goosebumps (3)

Horrible Histories (2)

Harry Potter

Roald Dahl (2)

C.S. Lewis

Ninety Nine Dragons

Children of the New Forest

Paddington Bear

Redwall series

Jurassic Park

Around the World in 80 Days

X Files

Godzilla

Tolkein

Happy Families (Ahlberg)

Comics (4)

Fantasy

Non Fiction

Adventure (3)

Puzzle (Mystery) (2)

Construction books

Joke books

Dinosaur books

Harry Potter (3)

Roald Dahl

C.S. Lewis

Peter and the Wolf

Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Jurassic Park

Godzilla

Winnie the Pooh

Dick King Smith

Animal stories (3)

Ghost stories

Crime books

Dinosaur books

Adventure stories (5)

Cartoon animal books

Table 5: Reading preferences for Year 4 and 5 underachievers (n=24)

Nonetheless Table 5 indicates that both boys and girls do read a wide range of books and that, like the high achievers, stories with an active narrative thread are popular with both boys and girls, encompassing adventure, fantasy and horror.

b) writing

There is a marked difference in the attitudes of the high achievers and the underachievers to writing. With only one exception, all of the high achievers claim to find writing easy and like to write. As with their reading, most children choose to write fiction. Adam says he loves writing stories with 'action and adventure' as does Emily who says 'I prefer to write an adventure story when it's got lots of things happening. It's not like real life 'cause sometimes life can be boring'. Both she and Adam mention writing reports for a class website which they have enjoyed. 'It's complicated' says Emily, 'but you can really get interested in it'. Adam also says that his teacher encourages them to work in pairs, which he enjoys, because 'we can write the stories together and think of them and stuff'. Karl likes writing stories especially when he has the freedom to chose what he wants to write about:

I like to do things my sort of way, so I like to get my own talent into it.

However, more boys than girls acknowledge the frustrations of writing with James mentioning that his handwriting is not very good and David mentioning problems with punctuation. Two of the children (one boy, one girl) mention liking poetry. Overall there is very little gender difference in the writing habits and preferences of the high achieving children.

By contrast the underachievers find writing much more difficult although when they do write, they still favour action and adventure stories. These are possibly along more stereotypical lines than the high achievers with Jacob choosing to write about pirates or mysteries, Roger writing about Star Wars and Ruth choosing her friends and herself to write about. Two boys who say they do not like extended writing tasks, nonetheless speak of taking pleasure in being creative. Geoff says he likes 'stories really, stuff that I can just make up, like fairy tales really... I like using my imagination'. These boys suggest they enjoy writing which is open-ended and allows them to pursue their own interests, ideas and imaginative flights. The problems with writing arise for a number of reasons. Three girls and one boy mention problems with spelling, four boys and two girls speak of problems with presentation, and three boys say a long piece of writing is a disincentive. Roger prefers it when 'you don't have to write as much'. Jonathan's difficulties stem from his poor motor skills 'because you have to use your hand a lot and I'm not good at holding a pencil'. Jacob finds the teacher's interruptions disturb his thought processes:

He (the teacher) just makes it awkward really. Like "now I'm gong to start you off" and it takes you quite a long time and you can't remember where you came from 'cos then he tells you what to do all over again and you've forgotten where you've got to.

He returns to this later in the interview, and his comments illustrate his frustration at not being given the time to do a piece of work properly : 'we're just doing a nice good story and while we're in the middle of it he has to say "Right, we're doing maths"...'

None of the Year 5 underachievers named the literacy hour as a preferred subject, but ten of the twelve said they liked writing stories. Two Year 4 underachievers also disliked the literacy hour but liked the 'booster classes' they attended. They explained that 'it's fun.. we have to break up the words and write some poems too.. You've got to try and spell it out and say the vowels... It's vowel rap'. They concluded that it 'wasn't really like English'.

The teachers had thought that boys preferred analytical activities, oral discussions and non-fiction reading and writing and that girls preferred story writing, extended writing and private reading. However, it seems that all of these activities were enjoyed by both sexes, with the exception of non-fiction which was mentioned by a few boys. Whilst there were some gender differences in the types of books read, most children preferred stories with an active narrative thread and their creative writing reflected this. The struggles of some of the underachievers with the technical aspects of English may point to the need to re-assess teaching in this area. There may be lessons to be learnt from the 'short, sharp, fun' approach of the 'booster classes' which appealed to some of these underachievers more than the literacy hour.

Discussion

The children's interviews are highly revealing about attitudes and perceptions to learning, providing both corroboration and contradiction of what their teachers believed and what current research tells us. In some cases there are noticeable differences between the views of the underachievers and high achievers, in others the contrast is by gender or age. But overall a picture emerges of children who are aware of the issues under investigation and have much to say about effective conditions for learning.

First, there is an awareness amongst these Year 4 and 5 children that boys and girls have different attitudes and behaviour to learning, and that there are different expectations and pressures. The teachers thought these pressures arose from situations outside school and that they were a 'given'. The children indicate that gender expectations are an important part of school culture and that the pressure to conform increases as they grow older. A few of the childen indicate that the pressures to conform to gender stereotypes are far greater in school than outside. Some of the boys acknowledge that they 'actively participate in their own underachievement' (Jackson op cit) because of the importance of doing what is expected of boys. Pupils' avowed commitment to gender conformity means that strategies such as encouraging all pupils to behave in the same way (or make the same curriculum choices) may not work. Such an approach, says Green, is often doomed to failure, 'for in offering the opportunity we ride roughshod over the very delineations of gender differences in which pupils desire to invest or feel compelled to invest' (1997;187). However, the openness of these children to talk about behaviour and about what they feel to be the unfair treatment of some teachers towards boys (endorsed by Pickering, op cit) does pave the way for in-depth discussions between children and teachers about school culture, gender identity and the harmful effects of some stereotypical behaviour.

Second, the children's perspectives on the curriculum and teaching styles need to be heeded if we are to avoid future disengagement. There are indications that many girls make the best of the teaching they receive, but that they would prefer to be doing work which is more active, involving discussion, group work and using the imagination. Boys, particularly the underachieving, are less compliant and do not concentrate if the subject does not engage their interest. But there is considerable enthusiasm amongst these boys for exciting fiction, history, maths and art when active teaching styles are involved. This preference for active learning styles by both girls and boys and their enthusiasm for the more creative aspects of English (corroborated by Hall and Coles 1997 and Myhill 1999) may indicate a need to re-think both teaching styles and the curriculum, re-assessing the place of creative writing, history, the creative arts and PE.

At the same time we must listen to the underachievers' frustration at the difficulties they encounter with written English. Whilst most of these boys (and girls) like reading and writing fiction, the problems of some of the underachievers foreshadow the decline in commitment to writing found in older boys by Brown (1994) and indicate the urgent need for creative solutions to this situation. There is a suggestion that some approaches advocated in the literacy hour are not necessarily meeting their needs and that the kind of strategies used in some 'booster classes' may be more appropriate.

Boys' underachievement will not be solved by more of the same. Neither will one-off solutions such as single sex classes provide all the answers. As is evident from these children's voices, there are complex dynamics at play in the classroom where teacher expectations interact with pupil attitudes to create learning environments which do not necessarily produce the best results. Listening to children provides clues as to what they as consumers value and are willing to engage with. It signals that there may be significant gains to be made from re-assessing and adapting curriculum and teaching styles to meet children's preferred learning styles and subject content. In turn, in-depth discussions with children may help them to understand their own part in creating positive learning environments so that they are able to challenge poor behaviour, take responsibility for creating positive gender identities, and raise achievement.

References

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This document was added to the Education-line database on 16 October 2000