John Morris: Back to basics for successful boys

The New Zealand Herald, Friday April 29, 2005

* John Morris is headmaster of Auckland Grammar School.

The Minister of Education has recently set up a think tank to investigate the reasons why boys are not achieving as well as girls in the secondary school system.It is not before time. In 2000 I wrote a piece for the Herald outlining the growing disparity in achievement between the genders.In the interim the situation has become worse, largely because of the introduction of NCEA. The resultant increase in on-course assessment has been well proven to favour the way that girls work and further militate against boys achieving to their potential.

In Australia, Britain and the United States there has been voluminous work done on this issue and the minister has wisely suggested that a review of the available literature would be one of this think tank's tasks.I am delighted that the ministry is also doing some research on this topic. In the past, intensive independent research has not been a strong point of the ministry or New Zealand Qualifications Authority. If it had been I am sure NCEA would have a vastly different look about it than it does today.One key part of the research for the four principals chosen for the think tank (two of whom lead South Island boys' schools) should be to talk to other heads of boys' schools around the country, particularly those schools that have a proven record of academic success in external exams.These people, more than most, know how boys work and what works with boys.Boys' schools are uniquely placed in this regard because, unencumbered, they are able to operate best practice for boys.They do not necessarily have to consider political correctness and pedagogical orthodoxies, because they can focus exclusively on what is best for boys alone.There have long been arguments about whether boys do better in single-sex schools than in co-educational schools.From my experience teaching for 31 years, 20 of those in boys' schools ranging from decile 3 to 10, I believe strongly that boys in boys' schools outperform boys in co-educational schools.

A glance at the 2003 University Bursary league tables will give an indication of this. While boys' schools account for fewer than 10 per cent of the country's schools in total, five of the top 20 performing schools in Bursary last year were single-sex boys' schools - 25 per cent.This is not an aberration. The academic success of boys' schools can be traced back throughout the history of Bursary exams.The reason for this is clear: boys do have a different way of working from girls. This requires an approach to teaching and learning that is different from today's accepted orthodoxy.Boys' schools that recognise these differences are able to implement strategies and programmes that suit the way boys learn and therefore enhance boys' prospects of academic success.

There are undoubtedly many things that impact on the academic success of boys but experience would suggest there are 10 non-negotiable traits that need to be implemented to ensure they reach their academic potential.They are, in no particular order:* Structured teaching and clear organisation.

* Discipline and order with few distractions.
* Clear targets set and met.
* Competition.
* Work that is meaningful and challenging.
* Material is presented in a way that is as relevant as possible to boys' lives.
* Homework is focused and brief, marked and returned promptly.
* Activities are purposeful and lead to a result.
* There is a reliable ladder of progress, and explicit rewards are provided to channel boys' competitiveness.
* Teachers actually teach; direct instruction, rather than the child-centred voyages of discovery so much loved and espoused by the doctrinaire teachers' colleges, has been proved the most successful approach with boys.

It could be argued these traits are also significant in the academic success of girls, and I would not disagree. However, I believe boys temperamentally depend much more than girls on these principles of traditional education and without them struggle to reach their potential and compete.In its research planning into boys' underachievement I suggest the think tank does not get too esoteric but rather concentrates on the basics, much like the successful teachers in successful boys' schools who continue to stress the basics and reap the rewards of academic success for their boys.

In boys' schools the 10 traits listed arguably constitute best practice and allow boys to develop their own thoughts and views and to become independent learners.There are of course those who, brought up on the child-centred pedagogy, doubt that independent learners can develop from such an approach.I firmly disagree. I am constantly excited to see boys grow, mature and become young men confident of their own views and thoughts.I was delighted to see that when the Education Office reviewers last visited Auckland Grammar School they recognised this fact and noted that the positive school tone and high standards of teaching had produced confident, independent learners (ERO Report 2001).

For years boys' (and girls') schools have successfully helped students to develop a strong sense of self-esteem and worth, while accommodating differences in learning styles and creating a climate of disciplined achievement.In large part this is because teachers in boys' schools are able to embrace the distinctive tempo, sequence and style of learning specific to boys.Of course most boys in New Zealand attend co-educational schools and such specialisation is much more difficult. But if we genuinely care about the academic progress of boys generally, then some of the methods used in successful boys' schools must be looked at and perhaps tested in a co-ed environment.