Why are boys so bored of art?
In the UK GCSE Art & Design exam, just under 34 per cent of students are male and at A level those numbers fall even further to about 25 per cent. And the attainment of boys is lower than girls too. Only 63% of boys got a grade C in 2015 compared to almost 76% of girls. I think we have to ask ourselves some honest questions, to find out why this might be. Whilst I would accept that girls outperform boys in virtually all subjects, we need to understand why this is and seek to redress the balance.
I believe it's because art has become very process led and it is deeply rooted in Fine Motor Skills, which favour girls. If you want to engage boys it might be as simple as developing activities that are geared towards Gross Motor Skills, which boys tend to like. Think of the subjects boys dominate: PE, and DT for example, which are heavily centred on GMS. Boys will naturally gravitate to Sculpture, so try to do more of that. (They also favour Digital Design too, because it's cool!)
Passing an exam is very dependent on meeting the four assessment objectives, so projects have to have written to show understanding, artist links and experimentation, and they are usually dependent on skills, drawing and realism. The teacher plans projects they know work and get results. The trouble is; boys find a lot of the traditional topics boring and the ones they do like they struggle to do themselves.
I’ll be bluntly honest here; if I was a student at school today I doubt I would choose art as an option for exam. That’s quite a radical thing for a lifelong artist to say, but I don’t much like heavily process-led art and I could never do those achingly beautiful sketchbooks in a million years. I much prefer to just get on and do it. A lot of my thinking is in my head, it’s organic and it evolves over the course of the work. I’d rather do something ten times over and fail each one than do it once where I have to show evidence of every stage of my thinking. I’m not against planning and preparation, but I don’t really care how pretty it looks or how it relates to an artist's work. And please don’t ask me to write reams of annotation explaining my thinking because I just don’t want to! For me, planning and preparation is just that, it’s rough, unfinished and incomplete. I think as long as we have a heavily process-led system that rewards presentation above ideas and thinking then we’ll continue to lose our boys. We seem to have become obsessed with analyzing every stage of the art process when we need to just get on and make art free from all this assessment angst.
Tips to help the boys
Teach Design, not art. Art has poor street cred with boys. They see it as; a girl’s subject, a weird subject, a pointless subject, or too much like hard work. Design is cool. You get to use computers and it’s vocational. It has purpose.
Break the culture of mockery and ridicule One of the strongest forces that you need to overcome is the 'banter' culture. Boys mock and ridicule each other like a pack of hyenas attacking their prey if they see anything out of the ordinary. Any attempts to engage boys in learning, extra-curricular activities or making special efforts might require them to face a barrage of ridicule from their peers. Engage in whole school efforts to combat this, do assemblies in boys 'speak' and try to change the tide of failure.
Boys like to just come in and ‘do.’ So try to make each stage of a project an action-based, practical activity rather than holding them back with endless research. Don't use long, wordy intros and get the literacy levels right with your teaching materials. Don't insist on boys having to develop neat ideas in sketchbooks, get them making maquettes in clay, wire or card then photographing them. If that doesn't work, develop ideas in Photoshop, collage or mixed media. Anything that is tactile. Get them out of their seats standing up to work too, they'll appreciate the break from routine desk work.
Big projects over a term or half-term stifle boys. So break things up into smaller chunks, making each activity seem like a different lesson but which is actually part of the whole. For example; your project is making shoes. So begin the first lesson with a making a shoe exercise in clay, card or paper. Set it as a group problem-solving exercise and make it on a large scale. They will struggle to make the shoe and probably fail. But this teaches them how difficult making a shoe is so they have to find out how to do it. You've got your next lesson! Then, instead of setting the task to simply find images of shoes and make a shoe research sheet, make your lesson a problem-solving activity such as; 'How have artists challenged the shape and design of shoes to make them more like a work of art than a functional object?" Now suddenly they are going off in an interesting direction to specifically find good quality research rather than bland pictures of trainers!
Don't insist on everything being finished before they can do the next activity.
You tend to worry about things not being finished before moving on and this is a balancing act, but allow some finishing off time at the end of the project rather than losing motivation. Getting good outcomes will provide the stimulus to finish off weak elements later.
Keep things simple.
You don't need clever, sophisticated ideas with loads of research, just effective solutions that look good; craft, stitching, stencil, print, silk-screen, clay, abstract, graphic styles, cartoon, graffiti, collage, 3D, card sculpture, mod roc, Photoshop, digital photography.
Make open projects, that allow for the boys to select relevant themes of interest to them.
Why not pose relevant issues to them that arouse their curiosity? Boys often relate to issue-based art where they can make statements about the world and their place in it. Ask relevant questions, set problems not tasks, investigation. Don’t do all the thinking when planning. You think you are supporting boys by providing everything they need to successfully do the task, but actually, you are boring them before they begin. Set challenges then provide safety nets.
Avoid emphasis on realism.
Realism is only one style of art. Look at graphic drawing styles that boys love, use contemporary art. Show them that there is more than one way to succeed. Don’t show realism as your ideal. A good trick is to show them how to make prepared grounds from watered ink, coffee or charcoal etc. so that when they do work on the paper it isn't intimidating white space.
Don't focus too much on neat presentation.
By printing out photos they've taken or even doing screen grabs of digital thinking on a PC they can show you evidence of process. Rip up the prints later and mount them. They often aren't good at organising work in sketchbooks and lose work or destroy it, so take finished things off them and be prepared to cut and mount it up on to large sheets at the end.
Avoid long, written evaluations or laborious annotation.
Provide writing frames to help them if you have to, but ask them to identify keywords or phrases then just apply them. Use digital techniques. Why not evaluate and analyse using voice recording or video with iPod, then transcribe later (if at all) or use voice recognition software.
Have boys only art clubs! Boys actually like being away from girls and often do better work when they are on their own. If your boys aren't going to work at home (and many won't) then you need a boys club at lunch or after school. Let them play their own music and expect them to be a little more boisterous than girls usually are.
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As an NSEAD registered art consultant, I offer a friendly, professional art consultancy service to schools, from early years right through to Secondary GCSE. I've worked with infant schools to improve art assessment, delivered primary school CPD on skills and progression, worked with Subject Leaders to raise attainment and done whole school, secondary art department audits including formal lesson observations and department reviews. My over-arching strategy is to support the professional development of hard working professionals with positive and constructive advice for improvement.
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