Boys and girls learn differently, as Steve Mynard discovered first hand when teaching five-year-old children. Here he explains how equal opportunities in school can be achieved by acknowledging gender differences in school

Having taught largely in Key Stage 2 during my teaching career, I decided to try my hand with younger children for three very clear reasons. Firstly, in working with many schools and individual teachers around the country, I had come to realise that where the really important, ground- breaking stuff is going on in education at the moment, is in the early years. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is a revolution going on in the world of birth to five. Secondly, with a background in psychology, I know that the first five years of a child’s life are absolutely crucial to their future and, by implication, to the future of our society. Finally, as a man, I was aware that while 15% of primary teachers are male, less than 1% of early years practitioners are. I felt I was on a mission!

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What’s the problem?Getting fully involved in the induction process of my new class helped me to get to know the children before they started school. I was aware that some of the boys were coming from the local preschool with quite a reputation. I was determined to discount this and give them all a fresh start, but, truth be told, within a few days it was obvious that some of them had earned their reputation!

I called them our boisterous boys, and they became something of a cause célèbre as the year went on.

The first issue we had to overcome was the fact that this small group of perfectly ordinary, lively young boys had their reputation firmly ingrained among the parents. Whenever a parent came to see me about any issue, there was always mention of the accepted wisdom that this was a difficult class. As an optimist, I found it quite easy to turn this around in the first term by acknowledging that we did have some lively children, but that they
were settling in well.

The next challenge was to engage these boys in some purposeful activity. This is what our classroom looked like when the children were freely choosing their activities:

  • There would be a small group of girls at a table, tracing or colouring or sewing patterns, and quietly chatting to each other; the picture of calm, focused learning.
  • There might be a few girls and a couple of boys in the home corner. These were boys like S or O, who were perfectly capable of boisterous play, but also had great imaginations for role-play.
  • There would be a small group of girls on the creative table and maybe one boy who loved boisterous play, but was a good friend of J-L’s and liked to spend time with her, painting or making something.
  • There would be a small group of boys arguing over whose go it was on the computer.
  • Another small group of boys would be in the construction corner, arguing over a piece of Duplo.

Without wishing to stereotype these children, it was clear that the girls, on the whole, were calm and focused learners and the boys liked to argue! We needed to do something about our boisterous boys and I didn’t want that to involve forcing them into a girl-style learning format. I wanted them to be able to play freely, in a way that would allow them to express their natural desire for space, action and noise.

Into action
J was a key player in the world of our boisterous boys, so I decided to focus on one of his interests to start us off. J loved everything to do with knights and castles. We had a class talk and the children came up with lots of ideas. The boys wanted a dungeon and jousting. The girls wanted a princess palace. At this stage I didn’t know if this was the right way to go: if I let them have their respective wishes, was I simply reinforcing traditional stereotypes?

Setting my uncertainties aside in favour of child-led interests, we (my teaching assistant and I) decided to start with some jousting. We got two space hoppers out of the shed, to serve as horses for the knights, and I provided some lengths of plumbers’ insulating foam (the material that goes around pipes to stop them freezing) to use as ‘lances’. The children’s first attempt at jousting was very amusing. J and G rode at each other on the space hoppers, with their lances outstretched, hitting each other with the foam tubes. In their minds’ eyes they must have had an image of real knights doing battle, and they kept on and on hitting each other, becoming increasingly frustrated when neither of them fell off! 

At this stage, we decided that we needed some rules for our jousting competition and to bring more of a role-play element into it. We had another talk with the children. J offered to bring in his own knight’s helmet, breastplate and shield from home to make it more real. We gladly accepted this generous offer, but persuaded him to leave his sword at home!

At the next (eagerly awaited) jousting competition, we introduced a new rule, namely that whoever was wearing the helmet had to fall off their ‘horse’. This proved to be a popular decision, as everyone wanted to wear the knight’s helmet, but no-one actually wanted to lose the joust. This rule provided a compromise. It also helped when I modelled being a knight for the children. J and I had a joust, with me wearing the helmet. The children thought it was hilarious when I fell off my space-hopper steed, and they quickly picked up the idea that it could be fun to be the person who loses the joust.

Some of the girls decided they wanted to be princesses and say ‘Ready, steady, go!’ to start the joust. After a very short while, some of the girls who did enjoy more physical play also wanted to have a go at jousting. Our tournaments became genuinely equal-opportunities, but the important point is that the learning experience came out of the need for boisterous play for the boys.

My teaching assistant saw the opportunity to broaden the boys’ experience and, with some help from S, persuaded some of them to dress up as princesses and play in the castle tent we had put up. Through the drama work I have done over the years, I’ve always been keen to encourage children to see that, in role-play, boys can be girls and girls can be boys; you just have to look at the great British tradition of pantomime to see that this is so!

Campfires burning
Building on my understanding of Forest Schools (see box) and the impact that this experience can have on young children, I felt it would really enthuse our boisterous boys if we cooked some food outside. The equipment we needed for this included a sack of logs and some bricks from home to make a circle around a fire pit. A bow saw, a hammer and wedge for splitting logs, newspaper and matches, foil and enough large potatoes for the whole class completed the list.

I knew we were going to have to be very careful about this activity, so we made the rules clear to the children before we started. A semicircle of chairs was set up around the fire, about 12ft away, and the children knew that they had to stay in those seats. Half the class at a time was outside and if anyone didn’t stay in their seat, he or she would have to go back inside with our teaching assistant, who had the other half of the class. The children outside could only leave their chair one at a time to help me build the fire, cut and split logs and carefully place them on the fire. The remaining children who were sitting on the seats all had clipboards, paper and pencils and drew some very realistic pictures of the fire. Some of them also wrote words to describe the fire.

As the fire progressed, we set up a table to prepare the potatoes. By the end of the morning we had a pit full of wonderful baking potatoes and the children had minds full of learning. Then we laid out some tables in our outdoor classroom area, and when the parents arrived to pick up the children who stayed for only half a day, we invited them to join us for baked potatoes with lashings of butter. Delicious!

While this was not a self-selecting play activity, it is another example of how we tried to engage our boys’ need for practical and exciting learning. At Christmas we roasted chestnuts on an open fire. We also did lots of cooking indoors and found the boys were more than happy to get involved. Whenever we cooked, I sent home a recipe sheet so that parents could cook with their children at home. Finally, I actively encouraged dads to take their sons out cutting wood and building fires. 

Boys and girls are different!
When I trained as a teacher in the early 1980s, we were encouraged to see all children, boys and girls, as the same; we had to treat them exactly the same and give them exactly the same provision. I was never entirely comfortable with this approach and now, with 20 years of teaching experience behind me, I am convinced that this philosophy is at the heart of the problem we are now facing with boys’ attainment.

Happily, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is thinking along the same lines. Its booklet on the subject, Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements, published last year, is targeted at practitioners in the Early Years Foundation Stage. It states: ‘The qualities and skills that are most valued by schools, the ability to communicate orally and represent ideas on paper, are often the very aspects of learning that boys find most difficult.’

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) backs up this view in its report Starting Strong II. This asserts: ‘We know that to give boys and girls equal rights in the early years means to give them different and specific opportunities. It is not sufficient to say that everything… is open to all children, since at this age children choose gender-specific activities.’

I agree! Moreover, by trying to force young boys into a girl-style learning approach, where they sit nicely, listen carefully and answer politely, we are turning them off learning at the very start of their learning journey. This is not to say that all girls are ‘compliant and passive recipients of new skills and knowledge’, nor that all boys are ‘active learners and problem solvers’, to take a couple of quotes from the DCSF booklet. What I am saying is that they are different and we need to treat them differently.

References and further reading

  • Starting Strong II
  • Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements
  • Boys and Girls Come Out to Play Sally Featherstone and Ros Bailey, Featherstone Education. This looks at how boys and girls differ, how this affects their learning and what you can do about it.
  • Boys and Schooling in the Early Years Paul Connolly, Routlege Falmer. Analyses national evidence on the educational achievement of boys and girls and uses case studies to explore problems that boys and girls encounter and practical ways to help.
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