Traditional ways to engage boys

  • Debates about how to best engage boys at school are not new and have been running for centuries as teachers try to find methods to engage and get pupils participating in classroom learning.
  • There are similar arguments on how to best engage girls, especially in subjects which they see as pointless.
  • Exploring some opportunities to try some more traditional methods of engaging boys.
  • In this article, Paul Wright offers tips and ideas on ensuring all pupils in the class are as fully engaged as possible.

I’m an IT teacher, or a Computer Science teacher, or what ever you want to call me now – actually Head of Department is probably a safe title! When I started teaching I was a huge advocate for the use of ICT tools to engage all learners, I was fascinated by the potential of the iPad to change the landscape of teaching and learning. I think that potential exists, but it’s going to be a slower road than I first thought.

A challenge:  Engaging learners, boys in particular is a difficult thing, and I’ve learned that in actual fact I needed to embrace the methods that have been around a very long time (and add in the new ones) in order to be successful. That’s exactly what I tell trainee teachers I work with. So what traditional methods have I found really engage boys in their learning?

A conversation I’ve had with recent PGCE students…

PGCE Student: “That group, those boys just come in every lesson and don’t want to learn! Nothing is going to work on them. I give them the worksheets and they do nothing!”

Me: (Deep breath) Well, let’s start by assuming that they do want to learn, that they are interested in having their attention grabbed and they’d like to be made to go ‘ahhhh’by a new idea. What you have to do is look at what you do to make them interested.

PGCE Student: “What can I do?”

Me: Think about what you would normally do to engage them, make a list of the types of activities you’ve tried that have failed and keep that list. Force yourself to NOT use those activities, and to think of new engaging activities.

Over the course of an intensive hour long meeting my PGCE student and I explored some opportunities to try some more traditional methods of engaging boys, such as…(article continues below illustration)


Colour cards:  Boys are often visual creatures. They like ‘obvious’so things like colour cards can prove hugely useful in engaging boys to share their opinion and knowledge. Boys are often reluctant to answer group or class questions (their fear of being made foolish is huge amongst youngsters, and in particular boys). I’ve found that a simple option such as holding up a card at the same time as everyone else can go some way to removing this initial ‘fear’.

Traffic light cards help – Red, Yellow and Green. Easy to make at home from coloured card or cut paper laminated. Simple, effective and usable over and over again throughout your career.

Competition (house points):  Look for opportunities to make things competitive, either in groups or pairs. Bu be careful with individual competition as it can backfire and work against engagement if a learner struggles to ‘win’at all. Pair up learners carefully, thinking about strengths. Then think carefully about your questions or activities, try and plan something you know a ‘difficult’ student could get right. It’s a great way to start the ball rolling and get them involved if they see they can contribute something to their pair or team.

Mind Maps:  Give boys opportunity to doodle down their ideas. If coursework can be assessed this way then use it as a bridge to build up to further more detailed writing further down the learning road.

Puzzles and Games:  Puzzles and games work really well with learners – boys in particular. Think carefully about the type of puzzle and game, but don’t discount the value of a well planned challenge to engage a reluctant boy in their learning. I’d avoid too complex word based puzzles with less able learners. Go for visual first.

Relating work to the real world: Boys often struggle to see the ‘value’ in what they are learning because it’s abstract and it’s not connected to what they see as their ‘real’ world. So, where possible look for real-world connections to their learning. “How many iTunes downloads can I get with…” etc or “An app store discount of 20% applies to new app purchases, how do I work out…” – Keep it Real.

AFL: Well marked work, with good feedback, can’t be praised enough. It’s possibly the most valuable tool you have. Find a way to mark work effectively. Give learners areas to improve and then give them DIRT time in which to act on the feedback you’ve given them. Keep feedback and improvements clear for boys. List the things they need to complete, draw boxes next to each point and write ‘tick when you complete these above them.

Calling home: At the first sign of a learner struggling or falling behind – call home. Be positive, but ask for home support in helping the learner achieve their potential. At first, boys will likely see this as working against them, but with some careful explaining they’ll see it’s for their benefit.

Priase: Sticker, verbal, whatever works for you. Praise boys when they do well, when they show interest, when they get a question right! They need to be shown they’re getting things right in order to encourage them to continue to engage.

To my trainees that looked like a huge list, so I sketched it out and left a copy with them to go over in their spare time. In truth, it’s the tiny top of the iceberg of things you can do to engage boys in their learning.

Keep at it, and do remember that boys do want to learn, they do want to be inspired, they want that ‘oh wow’ moment when a new idea is explained. You just have to think hard about just how you engage them.

Click here for the full article, which is available to read free within the July 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine

Paul Wright is Head of Computer Science and ICT at Stoke Park school in Coventry. He’s a happy survivor of many Ofsted inspections, but remains more interested in how his colleagues & students rate his teaching. Frequent contributor to #ukedchat and #SLTchat as well as a seen EduSketchnoter and blogger.

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