“Naughty boys” trying to learn

By May 13, 2015Education
"Naughty boys" in the media: image from the Channel 4 gang and drugs drama "Top Boy"

“Naughty boys” in the media: image from the Channel 4 gangs and drugs drama “Top Boy”

Teacher expectations can constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers behave differently towards children depending on their expectations of them. The ways in which teachers treat students affect students’ self-concept, motivation, achievement and aspirations. Over time, the performance of high-expectation students will increase and the performance of low-expectation students will decline, until student performance and behavior closely conforms to what was expected of them in the first place (for an overview of teacher expectations and labelling, see Rist 2015).

Teacher expectations don’t just come out of the blue but are related to social stereotypes: they are gendered, classed and raced. As we say last week, working-class Hispanic boys in the USA get a poor deal in formal education. The same is true of working-class ethnic-minority boys in many other contexts around the world.

A 2008 study of the mismatch between student aspirations and teacher expectations poignantly illustrates this point and shows how formal education can serve to limit, rather than expand, opportunities for teenage migrants. The researcher, Melanie Cooke, followed three teenage migrants in London schools over a period of six months.

At the time, the three boys were16 and 17 years old. We meet Felek, an unaccompanied refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, whose family had pooled their resources to smuggle him out of Iraq and across Europe almost two years earlier. We meet Carlos, an asylum seeker from Angola, who had arrived in London with his family about a year earlier. And we meet Santos, a Portuguese national, whose parents are from Angola and Cabo Verde, and who had come to London to live with his grandmother.

All three boys have high aspirations: first, they want to learn English and find a place in London where they fit in; something that seems impossibly difficulty to achieve. They are disappointed with the slow progress of their English language development, and they are struggling with the fact that, in the one to two years they have been in London, they have not been able to make a single local friend. Felek has met other Kurds and also spends time with other young asylum seekers from Albania and Somalia. The friendship networks of Carlos and Santos are exclusively with other Portuguese speakers.

While they are keen to make friends and find a place where they “fit,” they are frequently harassed by local youths, and conflict and fights are a regular part of their experience.

All three boys have high expectations of their future, and all three see themselves as studious and academic. Felek dreams of becoming an engineer or a doctor to give back to his family and homeland. However, none of the three has received any guidance regarding educational pathways and, other than “studying hard” have only the vaguest ideas how their dreams might be achieved.

In sum, Felek, Carlos and Santos see themselves as fundamentally “good boys,” who have been through a lot already, who see migration to the UK as an opportunity, and who want to make the most of this opportunity to further their careers and to make a contribution to society.

Unfortunately, that is not how educational policy makers and their teachers see them.

As regards educational policy, as teenage arrivals they simply fall between the cracks of the educational system. While new arrivals up until the age of 16 are sent to mainstream schools in the UK, arrivals above this age are treated as adults and are offered English language classes designed for adults, from all kinds of backgrounds, who lack basic vocational skills (for an overview of educational provisions for refugee youths in Australia, see Moore, Nicholas & Deblaquiere 2008). The classes are designed to teach numeracy, literacy and English that will allow graduates to transfer into a vocational course and to become “job-ready.” Other than English language training, no pathway that would continue their secondary education is available to them because no one ever seems to have envisaged that teenage migrants might have educational aspirations.

As regards their teachers, they know next to nothing about their students’ life outside the classroom and so draw on stereotypes about Middle Eastern and black male adolescents in their interactions with their students: they see them as ignorant young men who lack discipline and who have no past and no future. As one teacher puts it: “they come to this country … they get off the plane and they have no idea … about anything” (quoted in Cooke 2008, p. 32).

The teachers, both of who are middle-class women, one British Asian and the other white British, in particular react to what they see as the boys’ sexism. Carlos and Santos, for instance, have both been banned from interacting with younger girls in the mainstream school to which their English-language program is attached. Supposedly, this was because the boys were causing trouble. However, Carlos’ and Santos’ explanation of the event that led to the ban is quite different: in their account, another young boy, who is also a recent arrival from Angola, one day went to school wearing girls’ pants. According to Carlos, this is what happened next:

So those girls noticed he had women’s trousers. So they started teasing him. He doesn’t speak English very well … so the only thing he did was answer back, and because we were in the middle, they blamed us all. And they said if you do anything more, they will throw us out of school. (Quoted in Cooke 2008, p. 29)

This innocuous story contrasts with the teacher’s view of Carlos as a “gangster rapper” and “the naughtiest of the naughty.”

One way to control the boys and to keep the dreaded “gangster” that the teachers believe to be lurking inside the boys at bay is through sticking strictly to the curriculum and through controlling classroom interactions in minute detail. As a result, valuable opportunities for the boys to find their voice in English are lost. Felek’s class, for instance, at one point reads a text about the refugee journey of an Afghan boy. It is a story that not only Felek but most students in the class can relate to well, and some had, in fact, watched a TV show about asylum only the night before. Therefore, they are keen to talk about the text and discuss it. However, the teacher stifles these attempts at discussion and sticks to her lesson plan, which treats the text only as basis for comprehension exercises, new vocabulary practice, reading aloud, and as a gap fill exercise.

The researcher concludes that school is not a good place for Felek, Carlos and Santos:

[T]he learners described in this article are, educationally speaking, getting the worst of all worlds, despite the intentions of their teachers. A large part of the blame for this must be laid at the door of policy makers who fail to address ESOL teenagers as whole people with transnational, diasporic complexities and aspirations and who regard teachers as technicians. Blame might also be laid at the door of teacher education, which fails to envisage the potential of education as an arena for social transformation or to encourage teachers to develop as “transformative intellectuals.” (Cooke 2008, p. 37)

As Western societies are struggling to comprehend why so many young men from immigrant backgrounds are turning “bad,” Cooke’s research offers us a glimpse of how such large social processes play out in everyday interactions: how students become not what they hope to become but what others expect them to become.

ResearchBlogging.org References

Cooke, M. (2008). “What We Might Become”: The Lives, Aspirations, and Education of Young Migrants in the London Area Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 7 (1), 22-40 DOI: 10.1080/15348450701804698

Moore, H., Nicholas, H., & Deblaquiere, J. (2008). ‘Opening the Door’ Provision for Refugee Youth with Minimal/No Schooling in the Adult Migrant English Program Project 2.1: ‘Modes of Delivery for SPP Youth’. Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Rist, R. C. (2015). On understanding the process of schooling: the contributions of labeling theory. In J. H. Ballantine & J. Z. Spade (Eds.), Schools and Society: A Sociological Approach to Education (pp. 47-56). London: Sage.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller

    Yes, I also think that teacher expectations can play a vital part in student progress and as the post mentioned, “how students become may not be what they hope to become but what others expect them to become”. As educators, therefore, we should make it fair and try our best to treat students equally regardless of their gender and cultural background. Frankly, it is, however, not always easy for teachers to make objective judgments about male refugees when terrorism (e.g. ISIS terror attack) has now become a growing threat, especially to Western societies.

  • 44277660

    Personally, I think that it is the teacher that makes students love or hate the subject rather than the subject itself. It is also so true that the way teachers treat students directly influence their achievement and motivation. In my home country (Vietnam), the teachers always ask students to fill in a form with their personal details and background at the beginning of the semester . The purpose of that form is, in teachers’ perspective, to understand more about their students so that they can know about their learning preference, strength and weakness. However, the teachers unconsciously have social stereotype about students’ class, gender, race and cultural background. Then they have different expectancy for different students. For example, English teachers may have low-expectation on students who come from the Central of Vietnam as they have really strong dialect.
    “How students become may not be what they hope to become but what others expect them to become”. Seeing the importance of teachers’ judgement in cultivating students’ motivation and aspiration, teachers should treat their students equally and create a friendly learning environment in which all students feel included.

  • Dwitiya Nugrahaeni

    It is indeed true that teachers cannot generalise that all students have the same level of preparation to learn in school. However, it is also true that teachers tend to easily judge students based on these different levels of preparedness. Teachers need to realise that what makes up a student now is so much affected by what this student has been through in the past, especially for the case of migrant students. This is where the role of teachers as facilitators come into play. The key is probably understanding them and assisting them with their literacy practice because it has long-term effects on students both academically and psychologically.


    I found this issue relatable to some schools in Indonesia in which one of them is my workplace. Sadly, some teachers in the country, including some of my fellow teachers, seem to demotivate the weak students instead of encourage them just because of their slow progress of English language development. This kind of teacher cognition has resulted in a quite high number of weak students deciding to quit the after-school class at the institution where I taught, even what is worse is the student parents report that their kids cannot keep up with the class discussions and are not well treated in the class. This might not be as terrible as the issue in the article but unfair treatment for students regardless a matter of age, cultural background or developed skills remains a big concern.

  • Phoebe N

    Thank you for your insightful article. Yes, it is not an exaggeration to say that a great teacher can change a student’s life whether by better or worse way. With the role of providing role models to assist and facilitate students’ development, teachers often take responsibility for more than just academic enrichment. In fact, students’ misbehaviour, truancy or disengagement tend to be prone more to the way teachers deliver instruction and treat them in class. As a result, creating classroom as an exciting, comfortable and fair environment for learning will hold the students’ fascination, and students learn best when they are both challenged and interested. Though it may not be an easy task and requires considerable efforts from teachers, it will benefit students immeasurably in the long run.

  • S_A_

    Thank you for this article. It is quite saddening to read, especially the story of the guy from Angola who got teased because of his girls’ pants and then, unfairly, they all got banned from interacting with the younger girls. I completely agree with the article in that sense that proper educational guidance is one of the most important things young immigrants need. Because now, it is as the article says: the presuppositions of young male immigrants become a reality because it is very difficult for them to break the cycle without any help from authoritative figures, such as teachers themselves.

  • Roxxan

    Thank you for the post refers to real life issues. The boy in the article was discriminated by his teacher, which is a similar experience I had when I was a child. My family immigrated to a city where mainly speak Cantonese in China. While I was a child who know nothing about Cantonese, both teachers and classmates regard me as a ‘alien’, teacher teach in Cantonese and students discuss in Cantonese as well. As I could not understand even one word, teacher seems just ‘ignore’ me, because I was the only one who could not understand that language. At that time, I felt I was ‘abandoned’, as a result, I tried to refuse to go to school and asked for quit that school, but I failed. Therefore, I began to sleep and read novels in class. Again, the teacher just left me as I didn’t sit in the classroom. Finally, my result of that semester was extremely terrible. After that black time in my childhood, I realised that teacher plays a vital role in guiding a child, teacher is the key to decide the children’s future in his class.