On English and boys
The age of anecdote is over and it's time to act
There was a fair amount of speculation and anecdote about the differences in achievement between boys and girls in this article published last week. The findings in private schools reflected the broader differences between the sexes in Australia’s high-stakes final examinations. Some school leaders explained the issue as being due to a lack of structure during COVID, others argued that “the default settings in schools are oriented more towards girls and the ways they learn, rather than boys.” Aside from the questions about what those “default” settings are, what research these comments were based on, and of course the old furphy about the different ways students learn, I really just want to focus on one area: the claim of the Higher School Certificate being biased against boys because English is compulsory.
[The commenter] criticised the mandatory inclusion of English in the HSC, which tends to favour girls. “There’s bias in the system. My view is that if you’re going to have an ATAR, there should be free choice for students to nominate their 10 best units.”
I’m going to follow this thought through to its logical end. Take a student with weak literacy. Then when they turn 16, give that child a choice between abandoning English or enrolling in two more years of secondary literacy instruction. Given a choice between a can of V and a glass of water, what do you think many teenaged boys would choose? Is this choice going to have a positive impact on the student’s ATAR in light of the fact that most of their other subjects will require written responses? Will their engagement with English drop off in Year 10, with the knowledge that they don’t need to take the subject in Year 11?
It seems the suggestion here is to allow our students with the greatest need to simply avoid their area of weakness. The Dunning Kruger effect is strong here and students rely on schools, and the broader system, to make the hard choices that are best for their learning. It’s certainly easier to choose the path of least resistance, but where is the impetus from leaders to support student literacy? I have no problem with high-stakes examinations or striving for achievement as a primary aim of schooling, but when leaders advocate against the best possible literacy outcomes in favour of a number, I’m compelled to speak out.
As leaders we have options. We can claim unfairness and advocate for a situation that could be perceived as more advantageous, essentially if I can’t win then I won’t play. Or we can acknowledge the lack of engagement and achievement in English in our boys and look to research for understanding of the problems and the solutions. Rather than try to ‘game the system’ by avoiding English at the HSC level, I’ve compiled a list of possible strategies that leaders and teachers can consider, based on research found here and here1.
Attentiveness in the classroom is a predictor of literacy, and girls exhibit more of these behaviours than boys. This may speak to the point about schools being “oriented more towards girls,” but to me, this framing of the problem is misleading and defeatist. Girls may be able to pay attention despite poor instructional practices and behaviour management. The solution would be to create environments that work for the vast majority of students: take cognitive load theory into account by giving explicit instruction in chunks; and provide teachers with effective training and mentoring in classroom management. Hey presto! Your learning environment now favours everyone.
Gender biases affect boys’ interests in and perceptions of reading. Combine this with boys being over-represented in remedial programs, and the broader push towards STEM subjects that scale well in final examinations, and you can see the problem. Nobody wants to talk about biological differences between girls and boys, with many schools preferring to fill the curriculum with niche, young-adult identity texts. Text choice matters, especially since boys tend to read only at school. While giving over instructional time to silent sustained reading is generally accepted to be a bad idea, audiobooks for poor readers will develop vocabulary and give students a fluent experience of a text. As an important aside, parent education about screen time is desperately needed. If you want confirmation, ask your male students what they did over the break.
The biological differences between girls and boys need more attention. Language disorders are more prevalent in boys. Fine motor skills used for writing are slower to develop, making writing frustrating for many boys. The brains of boys and girls differ in their capacity to process linguistic information. The first step towards improving achievement is to acknowledge these differences. The second is to offer tiered intervention. The third is to make sure all primary teachers and secondary English teachers are trained in the Science of Reading. Adopting a program like The Writing Revolution at the whole school level certainly wouldn’t hurt either. Finally, buck the trend and give classes of low-performing boys to your best teachers who will give explicit instruction in a highly structured environment.
Note that none of these are definitive answers, but I hope they offer a starting point rather than the “abundance of speculative opinion” that actually hampers the progress of boys. As leaders, we can’t do all the things. And you might even say that the patriarchy will eventually sort out any achievement differences. But if you want to know what the real ‘pipeline to prison’ is, look no further than literacy. We know enough to kick anecdote to the curb.