Sunday, 19 April 2015

On inspiring and educating boys

Two young brothers drawing together

This blog is the promised sequel to the March blog on educating girls. As a mother of two teenage boys, I can now cast my mind back and comment on their education. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Both parents and teachers do the best they can at the time. Here are my reflections on the future of educating boys.

Developmental differences
Both of my sons were born in June. This makes them some of the youngest children in their respective school years. They are 9 months younger than September-born children. Girls are often two years in advance of boys' development. So we could be talking a 3-year difference in development. This is a very significant difference in primary school and gives boys the feeling of being "behind" at the very start of school. This is a serious blow to the confidence of Summer-born children.

Both Daniel and James suffered early learning difficulties. Neither boy missed any significant milestones before starting school. James, my younger son, was actually ahead of most children in terms of physical development - e.g. walking at 9½ months. He was also fascinated by sums between 1 and 100 in nursery school, while others were still counting from 1 to 10. 

My elder son Daniel suffered with extreme hypermobility. This gave him many of the social disadvantages of dyspraxia. Writing was extremely difficult for him. His hands were simply too flexible to control a pencil. Occupational therapy helped to build up his hand strength. It was very hard for him to keep up in class. He simply couldn't write as much as the others within a given time slot.

Pic of child's drawing of helicopter
An early drawing with writing (copyright D. Netto)

To this day, Daniel writes with an unconventional grip. Children learn to compensate. He developed a fascination with computers. On arrival at high school, he was advanced in ICT skills. He was placed in the Gifted and Talented Group. Today, his fingers fly over any keyboard or keypad. He will shortly be taking his A' levels and plans to study computing at university from October 2015.

In Daniel's primary school days, the rough and tumble of the playground was a nightmare for him. He was always falling or getting knocked over. He adopted the wise strategy of heading for the medical room before getting hurt. He enjoyed a good chat there. He couldn't keep up with the boisterous boys so he talked to the girls and the staff instead. He excelled at the oral part of the old English GCSE as a result. 

Early learning difficulties are in the distant past now. Daniel compensated by developing into a "geek" with excellent verbal skills - just what businesses are crying out for. Teamwork skills came later - thanks to the excellent Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

Although my two sons are like chalk and cheese*, my younger son James also had early learning difficulties - both with reading and writing. From babyhood until the first year of school he suffered  a seemingly endless series of ear infections. He could hear, but we later discovered at Great Ormond Street Hospital that some of the pathways in his brain were immature. So, we were all trying to teach him to read without the basic sound foundations in place. His ears worked. His brain worked. They just didn't work together to make the necessary sound connections.

An e-learning programme helped him to catch up. Ordinarily, such a child lacks social confidence. James has always been an all-round sportsman. He is not competitive. He is a team player and makes friends easily. I remember reading that Richard Branson succeeded in business because his dyslexia forced him to delegate. Unfortunately, school will never be James's favourite place - and now they want to keep him until 18! I have no doubt that his personality will take him far.

Pic of son on nursery school sports' day with winning stickers and effort certificate
My little sportsman  c. J Netto

A special primary school project brought the major turning point for James. An inspirational NQT (newly qualified teacher) took a special interest in encouraging him. For homework he had to create a poster on astronomy with words and pictures. He chose Pluto. Why? Because he felt sorry for poor Pluto. Once it had been a planet, but they downgraded it to a dwarf planet. He was inspired by its "underdog" status. He wrote more in one evening than we had ever seen him write before. It got easier from that point. His teacher and I made a really big fuss of his efforts. He remembers it well.

Pic of solar system with dwarf planet Pluto at the back
Solar system - dwarf planet Pluto at the back - now often left out © La Gorda

Looking back, I remember how James regularly used to miss History and Geography lessons for extra literacy support. They became two of his favourite subjects at High School. In History and Geography, he is inspired to write more by the facts, interesting subject matter and visuals. Today, James's favourite GCSE subject is Media Studies. Teaching literacy through other subjects seems to work better.

The UK's National Curriculum has become very prescriptive. I do not believe that it allows teachers enough flexibility to inspire the individual personalities before them. League tables, constant assessments and targets seem to stress both teachers and pupils. Even the reports have become very formulaic. Parents are none the wiser for all the data. KPIs belong in businesses, not in schools. Not everything that counts in education can be counted.

To my mind, the most important thing is to teach children to love learning. Boys generally seem prone to doing the bare minimum (if they can get away with it). The pace of technological change means that today's children will need to keep reinventing themselves. They will need to adapt and learn new skills more frequently than previous generations. A love of learning is paramount. Boys are now falling behind girls. Today's teaching methods favour girls.

I fully appreciate that it is difficult to teach different material to children in the same class. Analyse any child's performance and you see spikes in progression. They do not learn in a linear fashion to a preconceived plan. Dwelling too long on a weakness can be harmful to their love of learning. There must be an answer to educating boys in one son's love of technology and the other's Pluto-inspired motivation.

We need to motivate boys to love learning as much as girls. Today's boys will have girls as bosses. However, society needs equality, not role reversal. I believe that boys and girls should learn to work with each other side by side. We just need to find more innovative ways to motivate them.

Pic of girl and boy working together surrounded by maths formulae background
Boy and girl learning side by side  © nearbirds -

Let's also appreciate that not everyone is destined to be an academic. People often have strengths that the outside world appreciates more than schools.

I remember playing the game Blokus one Christmas with James, my sister and brother-in-law. James was just 7, playing for the first time - he beat three graduates outright - and we definitely didn't let him win. He discovered the most extraordinary visual gift allied with a strategic brain.

Pic of very brightly coloured online space game
Visually appealing, strategic online space game © nearbirds

From my experience, I think that the trick lies in discovering what a child is good at early on. They need something that they feel good at - better than others. It doesn't matter if it is just beating their brother at an online game. It creates confidence that spills over into other areas. It gives them the resilience to find a new level of effort and overcome adversity.

Boys and girls need teachers who inspire them. Teachers with First Class Honours don't necessarily make the best teachers. They need role models who inspire them. Steven Gerrard of Liverpool is James's hero.

Life is not fair. We are not all blessed with the same intelligence or skills. Slow and steady** often wins the race in life.  Those for whom life has come easily often give up at the first hurdle; whereas those who have had to try hard to succeed will keep going against the odds and triumph.

* Like chalk and cheese = completely different from one another
** Slow and steady wins the race 

Karen Andrews (Netto) is the proud Mum of two boys described above. Her other full-time job is running Anglicity Ltd., offering content writing and French to English translation/transcreation. 

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