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How to forge future-ready young men with big hearts

Grimes has spent 22 years in boys’ schools, seven in co-educational schools, and thinks many schools have become “less friendly” for boys.

“Boys need real-world relevance,” he says. “When we support literacy through spatial and visual representations, we can really connect with them.”

Strategies where boys learn best

Ben Barrington-Smith is head of the Newington College Preparatory School in Sydney’s Lindfield, where boys from K-6 learn in a bushland setting and are introduced to the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Program.

He says the school uses many strategies to cater to the way boys prefer to learn. Younger grades do focused, intense work in small groups for short bursts, then take a break before moving on to more lessons.

“When learning is a social activity and you’re able to discuss and work through tasks together, that really keeps boys engaged and on track,” says Barrington-Smith.

In the early years of school, setting the foundations for literacy and numeracy are critical and explicit teaching must take place – so finding ways to engage boys is important.

“We spend a lot of time getting to know how each boy ticks, his interests and character and what appeals to him,” says Barrington-Smith.

“Boys will switch off if they are expected to sit and listen to something without understanding the purpose.”

As boys get older, they have more “voice and choice and agency” in their learning.

“We look for the hooks for learning that pique their interest – once you tap into their natural curiosity, boys will take their learning in directions you haven’t even imagined,” he says.

The school collaborated with a furniture company to introduce flexible furniture into the four upper-grade classrooms, creating a space for collective problem solving – or to allow creativity and individual focus.

“We have break-out collaborative areas with sofas, standing tables, tables on rollers, sight screens and we can change the formation of our classroom three or four times a day.”

Boys brains

Peter Grimes says it’s important to look out for the “quiet disengagement’’.

Headmaster Peter Grimes with kindy students at Mosman Church of England Preparatory School.

Headmaster Peter Grimes with kindy students at Mosman Church of England Preparatory School.

“Boys respond well when you see them as a person, so right from the start it’s important to build that relationship, connection and trust with their teacher.”

He says boys may have short attention spans but respond well to brief, explicit instructions. “We help them to learn material in small chunks which get bigger as they get older,” he says.

During those times of short attention span, boys can absorb a surprising amount of information, particularly when motivated to learn through feedback from their peers and their teacher, rather than stickers and rewards.

“You will lose boys if they get the sense that they are not being heard, so we look for opportunities to pull them into engaging conversations, to train them to be active listeners and allow them to explore their thinking.”

Leadership as service

Ben Barrington-Smith says developing and cultivating leadership in boys is not about roles and titles. “We see leadership as a pastoral role and we have a really strong emphasis on leadership as service in the school and the community.”

The schools “buddy” program sees older boys helping younger students with their reading and playing with younger boys at lunchtime.

“The leadership qualities we really value are looking after others and being caring, such as helping boys who are struggling with being part of groups and connecting with them,” Barrington-Smith says.

Boys can get a bad rap because they need active learning and movement, and can find sitting still for long periods stressful.

“Boys are kind and caring, and we do them a disservice when we constantly view them as being disruptive,” he says.

Newington College Preparatory School partners with a nearby special needs school, with senior boys visiting each fortnight to help out with games and activities.

“We’re forming a culture where strong and powerful leadership focuses on looking after others, building empathy and being caring to others,” Barrington-Smith says.

At Mosman Prep, leaders are also chosen for their caring approach.

Peter Grimes says there’s a culture of “servant leadership” that ties in with the school’s Christian ethos. “We adopt the model of Jesus as a leader and prepare boys to develop humility, inner confidence and self-awareness,” he says.

“By the time boys reach their senior years, they are all given opportunities to be leaders who are generous and who take pride in making a contribution to their community.”


At Knox Grammar School, Principal Scott James says learning caters for the ways boys think and absorb information.

Knox Grammar School's principal, Scott James

Knox Grammar School’s principal, Scott James

“We focus on boys’ total fitness across four key areas: academic, social-emotional, physical, and spiritual, and we want to provide boys with the skills, knowledge, the mindset and the dispositions to cope with this rapidly-changing world.”

A recent curriculum revamp has brought in an interdisciplinary approach the school has dubbed “Knox-igations,”, where boys are given an action research project that crosses five “domains”, he says.

“They draw on knowledge from science and English and maths to solve complex real- world problems – and that taps into things that are really important for boys, where they want their learning to have relevance and significance.”

James says the projects help boys develop skills and attitudes that assist them to become resilient and recover from setbacks, be persistent and agile in the way they think and solve problems.

“It has been an absolute game changer for us. Our boys are engaged and excited about their learning and are now saying that Knox-igations is their favourite thing to do,” says Sue Floro, head of Knox Prep School.

One of the school’s first class-wide action-research projects used electronics and robotics “Micro Bit” kits to build prototypes of natural-disaster warning systems, as part of a theme around helping communities survive natural disasters.

Year 6 boys researched natural disasters and analysed the systems currently used to detect and warn at-risk communities.

“The students followed a ‘design thinking’ process to develop an improved prototype version of the detection/warning system using their new Micro Bit kits,” Floro says.

“It’s been an incredible learning experience for the boys and teachers.”

Boys in years one and two developed ideas for sustainability including the use of innovative materials and ways to encourage re-use and recycling.

“Boys work on the content they’re ready for, even if that is years above their chronological age, which leads to significant growth for boys of all levels because of appropriate challenge and the opportunity to experience success,” she says.

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