Many adolescent boys are disengaged and unmotivated at school, and their results reflect this. Boys are not hard-wired to sit at a desk all day and learn in the way that they are now being taught. Changes to the curriculum, standardised testing and a lag time in the education system’s adoption of new methods of teaching are all to blame. Paradoxically, as adults our Generation Z boys will need to be creative, lateral thinkers that can problem-solve and think globally in order to be successful.
It all starts on the first day of school. We bid farewell to our beautiful, happy, enthusiastic little boys as they run to the school gate. Fast forward ten years and they are in Year 9. We haul them out of bed with a combination of bribes and threats while telling them no, they can’t have the day off school and no, they need to stay at school until Year 12 because there’s really not much else that’s on offer.
What has happened? Where did their enthusiasm for school go? Teenage hormones and developmental changes to sleep patterns may be partly to blame but the disconnect and disengagement that many adolescent boys feel attending secondary school can’t be wholly due to physical changes.
Concerns are now growing in OECD countries about declining educational attainment of teenage boys, as evidenced by PISA scores. The reasons behind this development are complex and include boys’ level of engagement in the learning process but also the ability of schools to motivate their students.
Kindergarten the old Year 2
The kindergarten our boys are attending is the Year 2 of 25 years ago. In a typical day in the 1970s kindergarten room we would have played in the dress up corner, manipulated blocks to our heart’s content and, if we had a really fun teacher, we might have done some finger painting to take home to put on the fridge. Now the curriculum has been accelerated. Kindy kids are expected to READ, sit down, pay attention and listen to the teacher – all day long. When the school day is over they have home readers to struggle through before they go to bed and they will also probably participate in a raft of well-rounded extra-curricular activities before and after school as well.
Different Learning Styles
Well documented research tells us that boys are not hard-wired at age five to sit and learn like this. Many are kinaesthetic learners; that is, they learn better in a physical way. Go into any primary school classroom and you will spot them immediately – wiggling on the floor and pushing each other playfully or tipping their chairs so far back you may even see some tip over altogether.
In Finland children don’t start school until they are seven. The belief is that letting children play and extending childhood is a laudable goal. Paradoxically while children spend less time at school in Finland, it is often cited as having the best education system and results worldwide. They don’t do homework either. Standardised testing doesn’t start until approximately 16 years of age so the curriculum is not narrowly geared towards passing tests.
In Australia and many other Western countries, the school curriculum has increasingly narrowed its focus. NAPLAN tests are now carried out from Year 3 when children are approximately 8 years old. Many schools (and parents) place great emphasis on the results and children are prepped by teachers by doing past tests in class, under test conditions, for up to a term before the test begins. In NSW the HSC has become the minimum standard for results, and this year for the first time the School Certificate has been scrapped. Boys are increasingly expected to stay on at school and complete Year 12, whether they are academically inclined or not.
Rise of ADHD in Boys Diagnosed
Sir Ken Robinson, in Changing Paradigms has argued that the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has risen in parallel with the growth of standardised testing. “Drugs are given to get them focused and calm them down.” He calls it “a fictitious epidemic” and believes we are “anaesthetising” children in order to get through school as it exists today. ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls, despite research into adults that suggests almost equal balance between men and women. Certainly there is no dispute that ADHD exists but making active boys sit at a desk for hours on end absorbing information can’t be the only way to teach them what they need to prepare them for the future.
To watch Sir Ken Robinson’s talk RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms
Robinson says “The problem is that the education system was designed and conceived and constructed for a different age. The problem is they [educators] are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past.”
Of course no-one knows what the future looks like. The Generation Z teens of today have grown up only knowing the internet, Facebook, YouTube and interconnectivity alongside economic uncertainty and a changing employment market. They have been accused of being politically disconnected, disillusioned and even lazy.
Success in their adult futures will be derived from the ability to constantly learn, adapt, synthesise new information, and work globally. The jobs that they work in are yet to exist and they are likely to change careers many times before retiring. Retirement itself may not exist in the way that it does now. Living in this kind of environment will necessitate creative thinking, an ability to adapt to change quickly, entrepreneurial skills and collaboration. None of this is taught in our schools. Schools teach students that there is one correct answer to a question and to work in isolation.
According to a recent IBM survey of more than 1,500 chief executive officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, chief executives rated creativity as the most important leadership competency.
Cookie Cutter Approach to Education
Fortunately not all boys are disengaged or at risk and traditionally boys do better in maths and sciences than girls. Some boys can work with the motivation of a good HSC mark. Unfortunately we use a cookie cutter approach to education which treats every boy the same way.
Our educators need to change the system, by encompassing different learning styles, democratising learning and by asking students how it is that they like to learn. There are also many girls who are disengaged from schools – they often tend to do so more quietly than boys, so we need to ensure that our education system provides opportunities for all students to learn in ways which suit the students rather than the system.
A Google search will tell you that educators and governments have been researching the issue of teaching boys for many years. Money has been poured into debates, policy statements, lighthouse projects, research into single-sex versus co-ed, private versus public and the list goes on. None of this investment has made a difference to the experience of boys at secondary school and in fact their “performance” at school is getting worse.
Our schools are taking too long to make changes to the way they teach boys.
The students of today may have a Mac laptop and a connected classroom and some may even have some male teachers, and yet they are as unengaged at school as they have ever been. We know that boys need supported, motivated teachers. We know that we should be asking the boys how they want to learn. We know that the old way doesn’t work anymore. We know they need real life, hands-on learning that is relevant to their lives. Let’s think about how to give them what they need.