Home study: leave the boys alone

David Millband wants to ban home study leave, the practice by which students take time off before exams, because boys generally lack the self-discipline to make good use of it. I heartily concur with the analysis of the problem, but I have doubts about the solution. For one thing, girls do make use of home study leave. Surely there’s room for gender differentiation here?

Let’s look at boys’ problems from a management perspective, as if boys were employees. Suppose we have observed that our employees lack self-discipline and will only work when supervised. A bad manager will impose more supervision; a good one will change the task structure and reward structure to one that works for this particular group. This is such standard practice that you can pick it up from any basic textbook on line-management. I’ve met David Millband and he’s a bright chap. I’m sure he can do better than fall into the micromanagement trap.

The key benefit of study leave is that the student can focus on areas with the greatest potential to improve his or her results – it’s an opportunity for truly individualised learning. This is the aspect we really want to keep.

The current reward system is completely broken. The main reward for study-leave diligence is good exam results. Every student wants these but they are too abstract and too far in the future to really motivate many young people. I would like to see each student teamed up with a mentor whose job is simply to encourage, encourage, encourage. Like a sports coach, the mentor would seek to build each boy’s self-confidence and self-discipline by delivering immediate rewards for every step forward. Mentors would not in any way get involved in the content of what was being learned. Naturally enough I would link mentors and students electronically, purely because doing so would make such a system affordable.

The current task structure is in even worse shape. Since the introduction of the National Curriculum, school learning has been broken into small chunks with defined, measurable outcomes. It has been delivered as short learning tasks, each of which is formally assessed. When study leave comes along, all of that is thrown out of the window. What surprises me is that only 50% of the school population falls over when their crutches are kicked away.

Until the rest of the school system has been brought back into balance, and students given more opportunity to develop self-reliance, we must put back at least one of the crutches during study leave. There are lots of good online revision aids out there now; what’s to stop schools (or the government directly) offering these to students through an MLE. The students can still choose their own study content, but they’ll have enough support to make study leave effective exam preparation – even if they’re boys.

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