A common theme of chatrooms for teachers is this question of how to best teach boys in foreign language classrooms. There are gender differences – but they may not be what you think they are. Neuromyths describe commonly held beliefs that may have been based on science and research but have been misinterpreted in some way. Common neuromyths that have been debunked include :
- Boys are bad at language. This is as untrue as the suggestion that girls are inferior to boys in maths and science. The differences between male and female brain structure have not been found to cause significant differences in their ability to learn particular subjects. (Good et al 2012)
- Some people are just naturally good at languages – usually girls. Studies in the UK have shown that male participation and success rates are higher in single sex schools (23%) than in coeducational environments (8%) (Sunderland, 2000).
- Students learn better when taught to their preferred learning style such as aural, visual or kinaesthetic. There is no scientific evidence for this.
So what are the real differences then? Andrew Martin of the University of Western Sydney has conducted some interesting research on student motivation in high school. He measures academic engagement in school via the Student Motivation Wheel (Martin, 2003). “This wheel classifies student behaviours and attitudes as either positive, termed “boosters” or negative, termed “guzzlers”. The “boosters” enhance student motivation and include self-belief, learning focus, value of schooling, persistence, planning and study management. “Guzzlers” corrode motivation and include self-sabotage, failure avoidance, uncertain control, and anxiety. Martin’s quantitative analysis of students from NSW and the ACT found motivation rates varied by gender on each of the factors listed by the wheel. Whilst girls suffered from higher rates of anxiety, they reported significantly higher levels than boys on 5 of the 6 listed “boosters”. Boys were particularly higher than girls in self-sabotaging behaviours that reduce their chances of academic success. Hattie describes these behaviours as self-handicapping (2012) and notes that such behaviours allow the student to deflect their failure away from themselves to the perceived obstacles. These behaviours include procrastination, preparing for or working on a task in too short a time frame or exaggerating obstacles rather than problem solving ways around them. The tendency towards such behaviour is suggested by Martin to be linked to gender constructs of masculinity and fear of failure. Ludowyke and Scanlon (1997) found boys were more likely to avoid learning new material if they were uncertain of success and less likely to re-attempt something that they had been unsuccessful at previously.” (Campbell, 2017)
These behaviours all reflect aspects of the fixed mindset as described by Dweck. This mindset believes that we are born with a certain amount of talent and that if you are naturally good at something, you do not need to exert a lot of effort to be successful.
So what do we need to focus on?
1. Retrain your male students using growth mindset strategies.
I began my Year 8 Japanese class this year by discussing with the boys the idea of brain plasticity. I used Brock and Hundley’s metaphor to explain this. This metaphor describes a house in a forest and a well-worn path to a river. Visits to the river require little effort as the path is used regularly and is well established. If you stopped using the path though, the grass and bushes would begin to grow over again and a visit would become more challenging and time-consuming. I remind the boys that we need to regularly stomp down the grass and review our vocabulary etc. The path is always there but it becomes less easy to access if it is not maintained. Difficulty in clearing a new path is to be expected and is not a sign of lack of ability. It is the natural way we “grow our brain”, just as “growing our muscles” hurts a little when we lift weights.
2. Acknowledge self-sabotaging behaviours.
In term 2 we have parent teacher interviews with the students and I often take in Hattie’s “Visible Learning for teachers” to share with my students and their carers. There is an excellent definition on page 46 that states “Self-handicapping occurs when students choose impediments or obstacles to performance that allow them to deflect the cause of failure away from their competence towards the actual impediments. Examples include: procrastination, engaging in little or no practice for upcoming tasks, exaggerating obstacles to success, strategically reducing effort”. (Hattie, page 46)
Just by showing the boys that they are not special, but their preferred avoidance strategy has a name even, can be the wake-up call they need. To change their behaviour though we need to provide opportunities for success and structural intervention.
How do we do this?
- Acknowledge that many boys will not do well on assessment tasks that go for many weeks and are done at home. Many just prefer a test to “get it over with quickly”.
- Acknowledge that many will display self-handicapping tendencies but deep down they actually don’t want to do poorly. They want to succeed but are afraid of making an effort and still not succeeding.
What interventions can we do to improve their success?
In our Year 8 class, we have a Learning Portfolio for term 1. These has three parts that all work together.
Part A : An in-class exam in Week 9. This tests listening, reading, writing and cultural knowledge.
Part B : 7 sets of hiragana or vocabulary on Education Perfect. These sets are opened up at the start of the term and students have some time in class to work on them. This is due Week 10.
Part C : A “Teach a parent or significant other” task created at home. This is due Week 10.
How do these tasks work together?
Part B begins the process of learning how to revise vocabulary and script. We start this in class so students can learn from MKO’s (More Knowledgeable Others – Vygotsky) and develop support strategies eg referring to a list on a textbook when they get stuck. This progress is regularly checked in class and merits given for good progress. By Week 6, an email is sent home to parents congratulating students who have completed most of the lists ahead of the due date. This intervention motivates students to complete the tasks and focus on their time management skills. The revision also prepares them for the upcoming exam.
Part C focuses them on developing a growth mindset about learning a language. They discover that even their parents “get it wrong” many times before they learn. They trial teaching techniques that will ultimately assist their own learning such as flashcards, writing things out multiple times, creating mnemonics etc. This also helps them with the exam.
Part A, the exam, is also supported by a google classroom intervention. I began posting an exam review post every night for 17 nights before the exam. Each night it was a new skill or aspect of content eg labelling a map, listening to greetings etc. This broke the study up into manageable chunks for those that are overwhelmed by exam preparation. You are there every night like a personal trainer to keep them on track. I create all the posts at once on a separate “teacher idea google classroom” and then just reuse the post on their classroom page on the allocated night. You don’t want to be creating these every night!
Good luck with those boys!
Brock, A. & Hundley. H. (2016). The Growth Mindset Coach. Ulysses Press.
Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset. The new psychology of success. Ballentine Books.
Good, C. , Rattan, A ., Dweck, C.S. (2012). Why Do Women Opt Out? Sense of Belonging and Women’s Representation in Mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.102(4), pp.700-717
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. Routledge.
Martin, A. (2003) Boys and Motivation. The Educational Researcher, Volume 30, Number 3, December 2003.