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Do boys dislike school? Or just what they’re learning?

Increasing boys’ confidence by letting them focus on something they want to do offers a strategy to reengage them with school. Shutterstock

Since the 1970s, a panic about “disaffected” boys underachieving in formal schooling has gripped Western society. Despite efforts in Australia like Boys: Getting It Right and the UK Raising Boys Achievement, this panic still exists, and academics and policy-makers still seek to improve boys’ engagement with school.

Despite the large amount of research available on boys and schooling, little work has been done on how boys engage with learning outside of the formal curriculum. No research has looked at re-engaging working-class boys with what they are passionate about. Music educationalist Lucy Green got the ball rolling with Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy, but few scholars have tackled learning outside of the formal curriculum, and student-driven projects.

While schools often place little importance on students’ passions, such as alternative music, in favour of a literacy and numeracy based standard curriculum, engaging boys through their interests can offer a strategy to reengage them in formal schooling.

The research

Creating urban music reintroduced the boys to hard work. Shutterstock

Research into re-engaging boys disinterested in school was undertaken in Newcastle in north-east England. The case-study school was in a suburb with endemic unemployment since the late 1970s, and where many young men turn to crime to develop their masculine identities.

The study tried to understand what engaged boys, and critically examined the schools’ attitudes that alternative activities boys wanted to do were not legitimate, despite the boys’ passion for them.

The study asked whether the boys disengaged from school because they disliked the notion of learning, or because they were not interested in the content. Research showed boys were well engaged when studying their passions, in this case creating DJ and MC-based music.

How can this help them re-engage with school?

Participants in the study achieved self-discipline and hard work, as well as creating a balance between self-reliance and learning to use their supportive networks. Despite the effects of extreme poverty, the boys were highly driven when engaging in the act of urban music making.

Their music-making was vivacious, honed and highly controlled. While the boys were highly disengaged from formal education, the music worlds in which they immersed themselves provided support, validation and admiration which were not part of their formal education. Creative spaces, musical spaces in this instance, allowed the boys to feel moments of success that led them to question the way they had always seen themselves as learners.

Recognising where boys, particularly working-class boys, can make positive decisions, means understanding how they use new mediums to become learners and teachers amongst their peers and potentially beyond. DJ and MC-based music offered a strategy for re-engagement with formal schooling.

While the boys in this study may not have enjoyed their formal education, focusing on enhancing their skills in DJ-based music-making created a caring and supportive environment. They found improvements in their self-esteem, willingness to work hard, and their “practice makes perfect” determination. Confidence found in these positive experiences can translate back into the classroom where they had so often failed before.

Why did they disengage in the first place?

There has been over-emphasis on working-class boys who are resistant to education in studies of boys in school. Boys’ troubles with academia are often highlighted, but in truth the worst off are boys of colour, working-class, non-heterosexual and rural boys. As a result, there has been an under-emphasis on boys who engage with learning despite social and identity barriers. Too often research labels working-class boys as loutish or lazy, without looking at the reasons why they have disengaged from formal learning.

Another gap in the research on boys in schools is in the area of what boys actually want to achieve and how engagement with achievement-oriented activities can change their behaviours in school.

By not exploring where boys achieve and what this achievement means to them, we know little about how to reengage disenfranchised boys, especially those in the “at-risk” categories, with formal schooling. Learning why they disengaged to begin with, and how to re-engage them, is essential to improving the outcomes for boys in schools.

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