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Developing a Balanced Curriculum Offer or Where Are the Men?

A DfE Community Learning | Mental Health Research site

In phase-1 we were mindful (no pun intended!) that in terms of gender breakdown, our CLMH research project participants were closely mirroring the overall college profile - where around 70% of learners are female.  In the early stages we had a really good balance - reaching the dizzy heights of a 40/60 male/female percentage split, but as the numbers increased, the percentage of men decreased.

We put on some courses that we thought might appeal to male learners, such as woodwork and a football skills course with Southend United coaches, but neither ran due to lack of interest. 

Time for the thinking cap

Now, looking at the referrals to the project in phase-2 we are in the same position - with men making up 29% of referrals - the same as last year. Time for the thinking cap.

Over the summer, I completed some research with adults who don't participate in learning at all.  I used a tripartite attitudinal scale - measuring thoughts about learning for adults, feelings of confidence about attending  and intended future behaviour for participating in taught learning.  What I found, amongst other things, was that the men and women in the sample converged on the scales as follows: both groups valued lifelong learning highly, with confidence to attend learning only dipping to mid-scale levels.  Where men and women in the sample clearly diverged was in their future behavioural intention to attend any learning in the next year. For women the intention to attend learning was only slightly lower than their confidence to learn, but for men their intention to attend learning was negligible.

The sample size represented a good range of ethnic groups and ages, but with only 25 people interviewed it's not possible to draw firm conclusions.  However, there does seem to be something going on around engagement with learning for men and it doesn't necessarily  seem to be about confidence, or even curriculum offer (although I am convinced that does play a part).

Identity and subconscious strings

I've come to think that negative learner identity is pulling the strings of the subconscious here - rendering some people  what the National Adult Learner Survey (2010) termed 'Learning Avoidant'. Unofrtunately, these terms aren't very affirmative - but they are all I have to hand to explore what we might be encountering in community learning.  Basically, if adults experienced difficult feelings (the ones that arose during my research included guilt, shame and self-blame) during their learning in formative years they are reluctant to risk feeling those feelings in education again.  I know we in community learning sense that already, but we also know we can tackle it once people are there.  It's the what if they never come in the first place that preoccupies me.  My hypothesis could be that men are particularly susceptible to the effects of a fixed negative learner identity, with women's identities potentially more fluid, being affected by factors such as having children, or caring responsibilities, or just different societal and cultural expectations.

Some years ago I developed an emotional literacy course, it's one I think that needs dusting down and taking for spin. It could be repackaged to appeal to men, but I think there's also something about being in a group of men, that some men might find challenging.  Isn't learning about making ourselves vulnerable again?  In a society where men are so conditioned to be 'strong' perhaps it's no wonder they aren't showing up in equal numbers in community learning and learning to sit with their internal weather.  Still, I sense that this societal pressure to be a certain way is shifting a little for us all, especially with the millenial generation (or maybe that's just wishful thinking). 

10-minutes to turn it around

This week I had the good fortune to meet with a group of men  who were 'visiting' the college. The reality was that they had been nicely frogmarched along by a very assertive outreach worker I know (and like!) from a small homeless hostel.  Frankly, they had had little say in the matter. I know what I'm going to get before we start with these meetings, and I can honestly say that they are my favourite kind of work.  The body language is closed, the eyes are downcast, hats and coats remain firmly on - there is a sort of collective hunch of resistance that fills the whole room.

I know I've got about 10 minutes to turn it around. I've got a lot of work to do and quickly. Learn their names. Use their names.  Acknowledge their life experience with big respect.  Hear what they say. Listen to listen and not respond.  Put in a reality check about the way the world works, for good or ill now.  Reflect on that briefly.  Make a differentiated offer for each individual.  I've got say, 8 people, if it goes well we might get a couple signing up (we did).  The majority will take longer, but the seed has been sown.  Some will never come again. That's fine - even I know community learning can't always solve all the problems in the world... but I live in hope.

I believe the reason that this works for some of these guys, some of the time, is that their lives are already in a massive transitional phase, so there's a window of opportunity to introduce interventions around new choices and behaviour. There's some research about that I've come across in behaviour change work called habit discontinuity hypothesis (I think), but that's a whole different blog. 

But maybe we should be targeting men in transition: new fathers, men whose relationships have broken down, men who are retiring, facing redundancy, those who are recently bereaved, men who are giving up smoking, losing weight, taking up exercise and so on.

There's always his-tory

In the meantime, whilst we figure it out, there's always history.  That's something I learned over my research this summer - some men like history.  Medieval history, military history, British history  - perhaps it's not so surprising his~story - maybe that's a piece of the puzzle right there.

Where next?