Reflecting on … Better to be lazy than incapable. The motivation of boys.

I recently read Arnot and Reay’s (2004) report on ‘The Social Dynamics of Classroom Learning’ and was struck by the depth and richness of their findings, after doing group interviews with a small sample of year 8 students.  The report is well worth reading although, for me, it was the comments by boys that particularly struck home at this point in my teaching.

The Research

The boys in Arnot and Reay’s research were articulate about their learning and have clear insights into their experiences.  It is well worth reading the original to hear the comments in their own words.  Five key things I took from the article were that:

  • Lower achieving boys generally lacked a clear idea of what made a “good learner” and associate this with certain behaviours such as not talking and doing the homework. 

This is a message they may well have received over years of instruction about behaviour and ‘tellings off’ coupled with rewards when they achieved these goals.  However, if this is their definition of good learning it is hard to see why they would put in the extra effort or work that other students do.  If they have been a “good learner” by completing the homework task, what is the merit in redrafting it to make it a bit better?  What is the value of doing a little further research when you can just make the font slightly bigger?

  • The boys interviewed all wanted to do well, even if they recognised that their own behaviour could be a barrier to this.

It is easy to see that if they are not always sure how to do well, and lack an understanding of what good learning looks and feels like, they are going to struggle with this.  This can lead to them being very extrinsically motivated and feeling under-confident and seeking support and positive reinforcement from those around them.  This could come from messing around with friends or just self-directing onto the wrong tracks e.g. focusing on the number of pages rather than the substance of an essay.  A lot of teachers are thinking about metacognition as a learning tool and it is easy to see how it might be helpful with overcoming this.

  • They had a strong concept of “stupid” and were incredibly anxious about receiving that label, from their peers and their teachers.

I think I have been reminded at every training session back to my PGCE that boys would rather be seen as lazy or naughty than stupid.  They were aware of the trap into which they fell though, with feeling stupid if they were given easy work and feeling stupid if they tried work and found it too hard.  What was striking to me was the amount of emotional tension these boys can feel about their lessons and learning and I wonder whether I am doing enough to take some share of that burden.

  • Friends were often a trusted source of support, even if they then got into trouble for talking.

This led me to reflect on how well I was supporting them in seeking help from their friends if needed.  A lot of my lessons involve group work with a chance to discuss the work before being ‘exposed’ to class or teacher feedback, but my seating and grouping arrangements are, like many teachers, focused on behavioural considerations rather than emotional support.  Our geography team strongly advocates sitting students together in groups in which they are comfortable and I am interested in trying this with my classes to see if it offers better support for underachieving students.

  • The underachieving boys rarely felt empowered to control their own learning.  They saw knowledge as something outside of their control. 

A lot of people seem to be discussing ‘cultural capital’ and ‘educational capital’ at the moment. Broadly speaking these refer to the things you have to bring with you to get the most out of the education system as it stands.  It is easy to forget some of the things that students can find daunting even asking for help or knowing when and how to ask for help to place demands upon them beyond their skill set.

In real life:

Interested to find out more and to see how far this applied to my students I conducted some short interviews at the end of last term with some boys who have been struggling in my GCSE class.  I was staggered by how well their responses fit the findings of Arnot and Reay.  One student, for example, has been in trouble for distracted behaviour, especially in group work.

The first revelation from the interview was his interpretation of what he saw as the most important part of the source analysis task:  “Doing the work.”  I attempted to draw this out further by asking him to clarify which bit was the most important and he said again “Doing all the work.  All of it.”  (Lacking a clear idea of what good learning looked like here but wanting to do well.)

I asked him what the others in his group were doing during this task and he thought a moment before responding that they were “talking about the sheet”.  We reflected on the difference between his approach and theirs and he broadly offered two reasons for the difference:

  • Their competence exceeded his: “they write more quickly”, “they can do it all”. (A strong concept of ‘stupid’ with frequent comparison to peers.)
  • His eagerness to stay out of trouble: “I’ve got to get it all done”, “I get told off for not working hard enough” (Wanting to do well.)

However, underpinning his analysis was a lack of grasp of the significance of the task.  He ended up copying large chunks of the sources into his table, without thinking about what they meant or joining in the discussion with his group.  (He was grouped away from his friends, who he may have trusted more to engage in discussion.)

Essentially, he was overwhelmed by the task and the amount he thought he had to do and did not understand that the key purpose was to discuss the sources.  He felt ‘safe’ if he wrote a lot (even copying) although this put him on track to fail in the discussion and questioning that was to follow, increasing his uncertainty and lack of control.  His experience was of “getting into trouble” for not doing enough work, in my subject and others,  and so he was desperate to up his word count.  I had failed to communicate to him that the core purpose was the discussion about the source material and it was that which I was interested in.   (Uncertain how to seek help and lacked control over his own work.)

Over the half term I have had time to reflect on some ways to better support these boys with their learning.  These are the questions I have been asking myself:

  • Have I done enough to ensure that they are working in a way and with people they are comfortable taking risks with? As an adult I take more risks when with people I trust; why wouldn’t they.
  • I know that this will lead to some off-task and distracted behaviour so how will I manage this?
  • How do I give them clear guidance as to the core purpose of the learning and support them with the less significant aspects without making them feel ‘stupid’?
  • How do I start to build a better concept of ‘good learning’ with these students, to build a more positive experience?

I can’t pretend to have the right answers to these questions yet, but I feel like Arnot and Reay’s work has got me asking the right questions and that can only be a good thing.  I’ll reflect further on what comes out of it in a few weeks.

Arnot, M. and Reay, D. (2004) ‘The social dynamics of classroom teaching’ in M. Arnot, D. McIntyre, D. Pedder and D. Reay (eds.) Consultation in the Classroom: Developing dialogue about teaching and learning’, Cambridge: Pearson


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