Forget what you think you know, GEMMA PAPWORTH insists the opposite is true, as long as your teaching is right.

Boys hate RS. Boys do not like discussing their ideas. Boys do not like writing about their feelings. Over the years I’ve heard these three statements repeatedly, but is there really any truth in them? Alternatively, are some teachers succumbing to a stereotype? Could it actually be that boys engage more in RS than girls?

For six years I worked in an outstanding boy’s school where I, with the help of a fantastic department, engaged all students in the RS resulting in them completing the full course GCSE. It was not always easy and there were always students who did not enjoy the subject, much like any other subject, but the results proved boys did enjoy RS.

In 2007, OFSTED released a report called >Making sense of religion< that collated observations and views from inspections. It cited that the underachievement of boys in the subject was “a major concern” and that the gender gap was widening (and was wider than any other subject). It was noted that more girls were opting to follow the full course GCSE and were achieving the higher percentage of A*/As, but why? What is preventing the gender gap from closing?

In my experience, boys enjoy RS. They love the opportunity to explore different ideas and discuss things that matter to them; topics that involve social and moral issues engage them more than any other.

One example of a task that boys have excelled in is a lesson called The Bomb Shelter. Students need to decide which six people from a list are going to restart the world following a nuclear bomb. The students are given a list of people with ages and a description about each attached. As a group they have to decide who stays and why.

The opportunity to discuss their own ideas and compare them to others proves very popular with the boys and it’s a lesson they will discuss in the following weeks, using the skills they have developed themselves.

Why do boys like RS?

Boys enjoy focusing on philosophical issues, the big questions in life – they want to discuss rather than just gather information, they want to know the bigger picture – not what a Christian believes about God but can we actually prove God’s existence; or whether the concept of war is acceptable or not.

Boys want to learn about the world, they want to develop a deeper understanding of how they fit in. OFSTED quoted that boys saw RS as a “rare opportunity” to discuss ideas about the world around them and use their own ideas to express different views.

This does not mean boys do not want to learn about religion, they do. They just want to learn about it through the discussion of different issues like the problem of evil – the focus on the application – a critical thinking skill imperative to GCSE success in RS.

All about the teaching

So why is there a gender gap if boys do actually like RS? It seems, from my experience, that lesson content is not the issue but the quality of teaching. In discussions with boys over the years, it seems they don’t want to be in lessons where the focus is on recording information without the opportunity to discuss it, or having the freedom to ask questions.

I have found boys to be naturally inquisitive, always wanting to ask more, often asking questions I had never considered. Boys want debates, a chance to express their ideas. They like questioning and the development of higher order thinking.

The use of a visual stimulus on the board grasps attention from the moment they enter the room, something that depicts the bizarre or unusual – a boat on the roof of a house for example. Boys will immediately engage with it, asking a plethora of different questions.

They will give random answers, bizarre remedies and then settle on a possibility, all the time fully hooked on the activity. Boys (and many girls) do not want right or wrong answers, they want to work an answer out for themselves, they want to be challenged and not get bored.

There is also a direct link to behaviour management – a bored student can often be loud, disinterested and apathetic in lessons. Give them a challenge and they rise to it; short bursts of information, simple instructions, a chance to ‘work it out’, and a chance to ask questions.

Boys are often critical of fragmented learning, they want time to focus on one topic before moving on, and they do not want to be rushed. Another example of an activity that boys enjoy (but would never admit it) is being walked through an assessment or an exam – the walking/talking mock concept.

By talking them through it and giving them an opportunity to ask questions, boys are able to understand the ‘bigger picture’ of what they are doing and feel a sense of accomplishment and progress.

Final thought

Only a minority of boys are opposed to RS, which is similar across the whole spectrum of subjects. Boys do not dislike the subject; their attitudes are often reflective of the quality of teaching rather than the subject.

This is not suggesting that as RS teachers we are doing it wrong, more we are not doing it right for the boys. As RS teachers we need to think about how we use discussion in lessons to enhance learning rather than shying away from it or including it to simply make the lesson seem more enjoyable.

Ask them the big questions in life and actually listen to their responses, you will be amazed at some of the profound things you may learn from them. Through the use of questioning and exploring the bigger picture, the gender gap will start to shrink.

Why do boys love RS? Because they get the chance to share their ideas and think about ideas bigger than them.

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