White working class boys are the lowest achievers in the country. Let’s grab the bull by the horns and change this situation.
This is honest blog post is about the motivation of very young boys through the medium of competitive maths. We’ve been here before, but this time I’m going all out to put my heart and vision on the line. Feel free to lambaste and chastise me for this, but I believe this is a way to both raise the attainment, success and happiness of those white working class boys at the same time as addressing our country’s need for a bigger pool of engineers, statisticians, finance professionals and anyone else who uses maths in their everyday jobs. In order to turn this section of the pupil population from a liability and potential drain on society into an incredible asset, we need to accept the possibility that deep down in the DNA of little boys, there is the potential to create mighty warriors, only we want them to fight with their brains, not their brawn.
So many reading this are going to shout ‘sexist!’ in response, but I really think we need to have a frank discussion about this. Yes, we could downplay the differences between males and females that might be attributable to hormones or socialisation, instead possibly convincing ourselves that we are all one homogeneous lump of humanity eager to collaborate and live in a hippy commune, but I really do believe boys and men are different. In a good way.
Where’s my experience? My whole life has been filled with mostly men and boys. Working in financial services and then IT has meant that colleagues have been mostly male. Even before the world of work, my 6th form chums were mostly male (my A level choices were choices that males were more likely to take) and, years later, my body only seemed to want to produce male offspring. Even my choice of sport (competitive triathlon and time trialling) is dominated by males. No matter which way I turned and until I entered the teaching profession, I was immersed in a world of banter, office japes, competition, ‘which gearset and frame is that?’, belonging to a tribe, singular focus, problem solving, serious data analysis, wanting to impress and rise up the ranks, speed, life hacking and ‘f*ck it, what’s the worst that can happen?’ What’s also great is that this was all incredibly inclusive: anyone could join in if they worked hard enough.
It’s been brilliant. Men are brilliant; I especially love the fact that they have an ability to absorb, protect and promote fellow colleagues who are quite clearly on the spectrum and they do this without fanfare or playing the equality card. Deep down it’s as if they are motivated by a desire to impress women and the world, promote their own tribe (whether it be workplace or family) and give their offspring the best possible chance of survival in life through whatever means necessary. Why else would we have ridiculously, perilously tall skyscrapers? This isn’t something to frown upon, it’s actually incredibly honorable. This world that I experienced is a world that I’d like those young white, working class males to enter and thrive in, only they don’t know about it and if they do find out, it’s usually too late.
For those who know me, my teaching journey has led me gradually down the year groups. I’m in lower KS2 now now and this trajectory will continue for the next year or so. A few weeks ago we had a rare, spare 20 minutes and I thought I’d bring the kids up to speed with the latest news by showing them one of those children’s news-clips and then having a little discussion about it. The newspresenter was stood in an open plan office and you could see lots of people working at their desks. Naturally, we found ourselves talking about offices in general and it had occurred to me that many of the children didn’t know about the normal world of work. So I thought I’d enlighten them.
I told the children the story about when I first went to work and how I had been given my own desk, complicated telephone (with lots of buttons on) and my own computer. I told them that I was really amazed at being ‘given’ so much and they thought that was quite funny! “Guess what, kids! I even got to have a cup of tea and biscuits to dunk whenever I wanted!” The kids were hooked and wanted to know more, so I showed them pictures of different kinds of workplaces where people mostly worked on their own in open plan offices, or in cubicles. The boys in particular mentioned the chairs and how good they looked compared to the ones they sat on at home and in school. You know, they had wheels on and who doesn’t love a chair with wheels on? I got the opportunity to tell those boys that the more awesome and hard-working they were at work, the bigger and better the wheelie chair they got and they bloody loved it! Then, seeing as they were hungry to know more, I told them about how, by being good at maths, writing and talking to people, they could not only get a fantastic wheelie chair, they might even end up with their own office to put it in. By now, they were besides themselves with joy about the prospect of a chair, telephone, desk, computer and office and then I dropped the c-word. Yep, that’s right. I got to tell them that people who work really, really hard and do well sometimes get given a nice CAR to drive.
To see that fire light up in their eyes as they realised that, yes, this sort of thing existed and that these opportunities were open to any young fellow who put himself forward to take the test of life was very interesting to observe. What’s also interesting is that I have found most young boys, when given the chance, will write about their future selves as being married and having about 10 kids (One time in my class, the writing about the future got a bit too competitive between the boys and I had to let some of them know that having 20 kids was probably a bit too much to ask of their future wives). Well, all those children need to be provided for!
Anyway, when we got back to the day-to-day routine of maths, English etc, those boys were very motivated indeed, more so than usual and especially during our weekly maths tests. Now, our maths tests are a bit different to maths tests in most primary classes. You see, we go for a personal best and this personal best isn’t just about the number of correct answers, it’s also about time. I put a big stopwatch on the IWB and then set everyone off on their times tables (or number bonds) test and then children make a little ‘beep’ when they’ve finished, noting their time. For some, just finishing all the questions and getting them right within 10 minutes constituted a PB, but for others, the opportunity to ‘go for sub-3:00’ or ‘shave off 10 seconds’ (and they actually use the very same language when talking to each other now) pushes them much, much further and harder, partly because of the adrenalin and excitement involved (studies also show that adrenalin helps the memory) and partly because I always talk about tests in very positive, motivational terms. When I first started, the use of an online stop-watch wasn’t standard and children used to just aim to complete their grids within a vague 10 minutes. I was with much older children then and I found that, in my opinion, they just weren’t fluent enough with their recall of times tables and I was worried that they would be held back by the demands of the impending KS3 maths curriculum. But, as soon as I added in the rhetoric of time trialling and a live clock to watch, everything changed. With every single cohort I have taught, adding in the whole concept and possibility of ‘going for a PB’ has transformed the motivation of children in maths because suddenly they can compete with themselves as well as with those of a similar ‘rank’. Who was transformed the most and raced up the covert maths rankings within a class, becoming better mathematicians as a result? You guessed it: white, working class males. Gradually dropping down the year groups has taught me that even younger boys respond in exactly the same way.
It all makes sense when you think about it; the use of subtle but constant competition plus the motivation of one day being admired and successful also explains why boys love football so much. Whenever a young lad plays football, he’s not just having a kick about with his friends, he’s imagining himself as his favourite football hero and dreaming about the life of that hero (the respect, the awesome skills, the car, the big house, the belonging to a mighty tribe). The fact that football is very much a grassroots sport, with all famous working class football players having come up through the ranks from a very young age through commitment and practice, gives the young working class lad the belief that he too could also become a great football player one day. Football isn’t just a game, it’s a complete package of belonging, motivation, personal development and vision. The world of maths and maths people could provide that too by co-opting some of the ‘features’ of the world of football, only this time it would be more realistic because for every famous footballer there are thousands of accountants, engineers, fund managers and IT professionals.
The thing is, just as the training of the world’s finest football player starts at around the age of 5, so too should the training of the world’s finest mathematician. Along the way, there needs to not only be leagues and competitions up to a national level, but also tribes to join. There also needs to be an honest presentation of the future that awaits the future mathematician so that he can hold onto a motivational vision of himself as a man. Young boys are not shielded from knowing about the fortune of the famous footballer, although we do try to downplay it, so why do we not tell them all about those wheelie chairs, company cars and public recognition that waits the man who is good at maths? Is it because we view it as distasteful or crude? I guess it is all too easy for a comfortable and well-off middle class teacher to prefer to encourage those young working class boys to aim for something a little less vulgar, or to try and make the world a better place through collaboration and being eco-friendly, for example. To endorse accountancy would probably feel too much like an endorsement for dirty capitalism, so the class teacher might instead promote working with animals i.e. making a living being nice.
However, I believe what is promoted by teachers may not be enough to displace the vision that footballing stardom brings to the young working class male’s mind. Instead, I think we need to tell boys about the real world and the possibilities within it for all boys, regardless of race, background or means, to shine and have a nice shiny car or even a chair with wheels. We also need to let them compete in order to become better mathematicians.
Who’s with me?