Why many boys only do just enough.
Are boys programmed to do only just enough?
There have been a number of occasions when as a teacher and as a parent I have come to the conclusion that sometimes boys only do enough, and no more, despite being able to achieve far more. Why is this?
I have come across what I like to call the “bar question” a number of times. This is the point at which a pass will be achieved or a “satisfactory” minimal outcome obtained. Once this is known some effort limiting mechanism cuts in and that is what they will achieve no matter what encouragement, bribe, or promise is made. I have long wondered if there is something inherent in boy’s attitudes and if so what the reason is. I think I may be able to explain it if we go back far enough into our evolution, and I mean way, way back, 350,000 years back!
Imagine this, early man looking for food. As a carnivore the food you required could both run away and turn on you. Survival entailed expending less energy to catch and eat your food than the food provided. This is a simple mathematical function: energy from food, less energy required to get food must equal a surplus. Factor in a little risk for getting the food and you would be better placed to survive the more surplus you have each time because you have to hunt less and take fewer risks.
How does this fit in with boys only doing just enough? Well it is the same principle. A kill is a kill, a pass is a pass. As a hunter there is no “reward” for overkill, in fact there is no such thing as “overkill.” Something is either dead or alive. Once it is dead you have done enough. There is no A* grade or report card sent home as to how well you killed. See where I am going with this? Once it is dead you have done enough and the less you can do to achieve the kill the better.
A hunter who only does just enough is a skillful hunter; he creates a greater surplus and raises his chances of survival. Survival means the opportunity to reproduce and pass on those skills, and of course his genes to the next generation.
How can teachers use this theory to get more out of boys? The simple answer is to lie about what is required for a kill, sorry, a pass. To raise the pass from the killing of a rabbit to the killing of a mammoth and describing the benefits in terms of food surplus, taking risks less often and a greater chance of survival. I think I will stop the analogy there but those of you who follow evolution will see where this leads. The other strategy is to build in competition. Who can kill the biggest and nastiest beast and so have the evolutionary rights that ensue from the status that follows. We turn learning into a sport and we make learning fun. In my experience the possibility of gaining an A* will not do it I am afraid, we need to appeal to simpler instincts and needs.
Fun is a powerful motivational tool. Sir Ken Robinson talks of being in your ‘element’ and how times flies when you are. When we are in our element what we are doing is far from a being a chore and we stop considering what is ‘enough’. We go beyond the ‘food/surplus’ equation and do things for the fun we receive from it. This is where we need to take boys if we are to get them to achieve their full potential and not do just enough to pass. So the next time you are faced with the ‘only enough’ learner try something other than lies and competition. Try making it fun* and see if it works.
*Fun is one of four key engagement needs we all share. The other three are: Power (voice and being creative) Belonging and Choice (not free choice but guided choice with consequences)
To find out about all four and how to build them into your teaching then my book, a learning journal for teachers, is published by Critical Publishing and available in all the usual places.