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“Help me with my mind!” Or keeping the differences between boys and girls in perspective, with help from Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath

Date posted: Thursday 30th May 2013

“Finished with my woman,
‘Cos she couldn’t help me with my mind.
(Refrain) Can you help me occupy my brain? (Whoa whoa, du du du)”
From Paranoid by Black Sabbath

Sabbath circa 1970

Sabbath circa 1970

I don’t mind admitting that when I was 14 I was big fan of Ozzie Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler, aka Black Sabbath. Their image, music and lyrics seemed to have been designed to appeal to the spotty adolescent male. Very little seems to have changed since they first emerged from the UK’s industrial heartland in the early 1970s. Recent concert footage shows that they still appeal to 14 year old boys, as well as the ‘inner 14 year old’ of men in their fifties. I moved on from Sabbath when Ozzie ate a live bat on stage, (legend has it that someone threw an unconscious bat on stage. Ozzie thought it was rubber so bit its head off). After that I took to listening to more ‘progressive’ bands like Yes and King Crimson. Though I’m clear that Sabbath and their ilk were a passing phase for me, I’m still very confused about gender. I’m not talking about my lingering fondness for the music of Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane phases, but about what to think about boys and girls learning.

Just to make it clear, by gender I mean how being a boy or girl is interpreted by family, culture and society, as opposed to sex, which is your physical makeup. There is so much written about boys, and specifically why they don’t so as well as girls in early years and in school. I find it very confusing. A lot of research is about sex differences; i.e. about how male and female brains differ. A popular branch of research is to give men and women certain stimuli and see what parts of their brains are activated. If a scan shows more activity in a man’s brain than a woman’s, then there is evidence of physical difference. I’m not confused about that. But what really annoys me is how these physical differences are reported on, interpreted, and then used as evidence against women, and particularly against women teachers and early years practitioners.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Sheffield looked at how male brains interpret women’s voices. They concluded that male and female voices affect male brains differently. In the male brain, the perception of male and female voices activates distinct brain regions. That’s interesting. However the conclusions that were drawn from this research, across the internet and in the media, are mind-boggling!

What I should mention is that this study was based on the brain activity of only 12 men, and was looking at why people who ‘hear hallucinatory voices’, e.g. in schizophrenia, mainly perceive male voices.

I have a big collection of books on male and female differences. I use them on my ‘Supporting Quiet Children’ course, to explore why there appear to be more girls who are quiet in schools, and anxious about being so, than boys. There are widely conflicting messages in these books. It’s not just that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but that girls can put up with boredom better than boys; girls and boys should be taught separately; boys learn through action and girls through being told what to do; women talk more than men; women need to be told what to do, while men need to work things out; boys are failing in school because there are too many women. And now boys are not listening because women’s voices are not deep enough.

Clearly I am distilling a large body of work into a few choice soundbites. However these soundbites can really stick in people’s minds, create opinions and get acted upon. There was a ‘frank exchange of views’ on one of my courses when a delegate informed the audience, quoting the Sheffield University research, that a reason for boys not achieving as well as girls was because women need to change the way they talk to boys. It seemed to me that women were being finished with because they couldn’t help boys with their minds.

I’m not denying that there are differences between boys and girls, and especially in the ways they behave when they are playing and being taught in groups. However I prefer to follow Neil Farmer’s suggestions: that we respect the differences in how boys and girls behave, based on the family and culture they are growing up in. In his book, Getting It Right for Boys: Why boys do what they do and how to make the early years work for them, he suggests that children are choosing gender-specific roles: they are influenced by the behaviour and opinions of the adults and older children around them. This was brought home to me when I set up an activity combining mark making and construction role play outdoors. We all dressed up as construction workers (hard hats, high-viz vests etc.) and used real metal tape measures to make marks with pencils on offcuts of wood, just like real-life carpenters. We gave each child a brick, mixed up mortar in a bucket and built a wall. Some of the children even role-played working in a builders’ yard and wrote down how many bricks they needed.

Most of the children got totally involved in the project. Actually the boys got involved. Most of the girls couldn’t quite see the point of pretending to be construction workers, and one girl, mixing up a bucket full of mortar, told me she was pretending to make a cake. It wasn’t that the girls were being stereotypically ‘girly’: it was just difficult for them to pretend to be men. On my travels up and down the motorways of the UK I rarely spot women construction workers, and those I do see are probably surveyors. It’s not a female role that girls can easily copy, because they just don’t see it. For me, this was an example of gender role models being defined by the wider culture and society. While I was busy despairing about girls and their lack of mark making in my activities and how this would impact on their writing, and bemoaning the fact that there are too few women out working on the roads, and that it’s a man’s world and there can never be equality between the sexes, my female colleague got on and did something to get the girls involved. She made the activity meaningful by saying, ’Let’s go and find a spider and build a house for it.” In no time a group of girls were busy building houses with my offcuts and measuring and mark making on their wood.

So instead of searching for differences between men and women’s brains, let’s spend our time creating activities that make sense and stimulate children to have fun together as equals.

Sabbath 2013: Finished with their women? Are their brains now occupied?

Sabbath 2013: Finished with their women? Are their brains now occupied?

Getting It Right for Boys: Why boys do what they do and how to make the early years work for them by Neil Farmer is published by Featherstone Education.

For information about mark making, including our construction role play project, see Marking Time.

Black Sabbath are currently on a world tour.

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4 responses to ““Help me with my mind!” Or keeping the differences between boys and girls in perspective, with help from Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath”

  1. Anna Brancazio says:

    Interesting and food for thought xx

  2. Elly Foster says:

    Another very thoughtprovoking piece, Michael. I run round my woods playing ‘the lost princess’ with my grandaughter (her favourite game) whilst the three grandsons run round with sticks that make gun noises. They have all been brought up to help with household chores, etc. I find that farming cuts across both genders easily. Once in a school I taught we built stonehenge replicas out of any material available and everyone got stuck in equally. Is that because it is a historic site and nobody has seen it being built?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Elly!
      I think the Stonehenge experience is interesting.
      I have been involved in 4 games of paintball, and found it totally invigorating, at the time, but very disturbing afterwards at how easily I could get involved in ‘killing’ people. But it was only a game. Some men found the whole thing very disturbing. Some women loved it and others did not.
      I think there are BROAD gender variations between males and females, that make sense biologically, but big differences among individuals from each sex. How our cultures react to those differences are important, and I think that this is where adult role models come in, as well as the influence of older boys and girls. As children grow into teenage, I think that film, TV, media and book role models become very important in both behaviour and values.
      In terms of language development, most girls are ahead of boys in early life, but boys can develop quickly if brought up in a culture where talk, and being articulate is valued. This reminds me of wales, with the strong oral tradition, as opposed to parts of London where I have lived and worked where men being highly articulate would not be seen as a valuable asset.

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