Are Boys or Girls Better at School?

Contributing editor Tim Johnson looks at the role gender plays in education, and explores the age-old question

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Boys and girls are very different from one another — their activity levels, their interests, their way of seeing the world; any parent will tell you that. And it’s clear that these gender distinctions have an influence on children’s learning and education. But how much, and in what ways? We’ve asked the experts, and will answer your biggest questions about gender and education.

1. Do certain teaching topics benefit boys, and others girls?

Yes, they do, and experts observe that this is especially true when it comes to reading. For starters, boys and girls tend to enjoy different types of books. “I remember going to the library with a group of Grade 5s, and watched from the door as the girls streamed to the fiction section and the boys to nonfiction,” says Dr. Heather Blair, professor of language and literacy in the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta, who has conducted a number of studies on the intersection between gender and literacy. And it’s not only type, but topic.

Girls most often choose novels, while boys prefer a broader range of genres that includes sports, hobby and craft books, as well as cartoons and newsy things. But that’s a problem, says Dr. Tracy Lavin, principal researcher for the Canadian Council on Learning, because teachers and librarians rarely deem these books worthy of study in school. “It’s not clear why a novel is more appropriate reading material for the classroom than nonfiction would be, but it’s certainly assumed that it is,” she observes.

And boys’ penchant for violence — as a study topic — also presents a dilemma for teachers. Dr. Blair observes that, when given the choice, boys often write about shooting, spaceships blowing up and other similarly fierce topics. “In these times, we’re very worried about violence,” says Dr. Blair. “But for a writer to gain confidence in his own voice, he has to write about things that he’s interested in and that excite him.”

2. What impact does boys’ and girls’ classroom behaviour have on learning?

Research has shown that girls are usually better at displaying the kind of behaviour that teachers like — things like sitting quietly, doing their work and applying the lessons that they have been taught. Boys, on the other hand, tend to thrive on physical activity and often find the classroom setting difficult, observes Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist specializing in families and children who has visited more than 500 schools worldwide. “So boys often psychologically outsource academic achievement to the girls. They say, “School is a girl thing. Teachers like girls better,” observes Dr. Thompson, who has authored or co-authored eight books on parenting and child psychology.

Curiously, Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist, medical doctor and author of Why Gender Matters (Broadway) and Boys Adrift (Basic Books), has observed that, while it’s not altogether clear why this is so, many boys between the ages of six and eight seem to learn better while standing up, while most girls of the same age learn better when they are sitting. Thus, many boys’ schools have a sitting-optional policy (or even remove all of the chairs) for this age group. Dr. Sax remembers when he encountered this for the first time, while visiting a boys’ school in Maryland. “I asked the third-grade teachers, “Where are the chairs? You don’t seem to have any chairs in the classroom.’ And they said, “Well, of course not. We know that it’s silly to expect eight-year-old boys to learn when they are sitting down. The moment the boys sit down, their brains shut off.”

3. What about play out on the schoolyard — is this linked with what happens in the classroom?

Absolutely. Dr. Thompson observes that gender-exclusive play — boys with boys, girls with girls — predominates until around age 10. In the girls’ groups, a premium is placed on cooperation and conversation, and those who use words most effectively are given the highest status. For boys, activity, risk-taking and competition pervade, and status is awarded on the basis of athletic ability.

Teachers, he says, fearing physical harm, often intervene and stop the play of boys, which ends up being detrimental to their success in school. “It makes boys take their soul out of school, because they think, “You can’t do anything here,” he says. “After awhile, boys think, “If they don’t like our play, they don’t like us,’ and that reverberates into the classroom.”

On the other hand, says Dr. Blair, gendered bullying on the junior high schoolyard is common during adolescence, with girls and effeminate boys often taking the brunt. This, she observes, is all about power relations, and is carried into the classroom, where boys tend to dominate and take the leadership roles — one of the reasons why parents of girls at this pivotal age sometimes place them in single-gender schools.

4. There has been a lot of media hype about a gender gap in literacy. Is it true?

On this one, you can believe the hype. The Canadian Council on Learning recently released a report, entitled “Why Boys Don’t Like to Read: Gender Differences in Reading Achievement,” which points out that the gender gap is very real: on the most recent reading results from Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), 13-year-old girls outperformed boys in reading proficiency by a fairly wide margin. The gap is also consistent over time: national writing tests of 13- and 16-year-olds from 2002, and reading and writing assessments from 1994 and 1998, show similar results.

It is also international: a female advantage was observed amongst the 15-year-olds tested in all 57 countries included in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The report notes a number of reasons for this gap, including general attitudes toward reading, the unavailability of books and materials that boys enjoy reading, and the boys’ view that reading is a feminine activity.

However, despite these gloomy findings, Dr. Blair, based on her multi-year study “Canadian Adolescent Boys and Literacy,” sees a reason for optimism. She’s observed an impressive level of digital literacy amongst boys, which doesn’t register on test scores and reading assessments. “Even when these boys were 11 or 12, it was impressive to see them manoeuvre between multiple screens on computer programs and games with such ease,” notes Dr. Blair. “I actually think these boys are on the front edge. They’ve taught themselves or each other many of these literacy practices, and these will hold them very well in communications systems, and in a digital workplace and world.”

5. Would more male teachers in younger grades help close the literacy gender gap?

Maybe, says Dr. Lavin, but probably not. While diversity in the classroom is a good thing, the research does not show that the teacher’s gender has much of an impact on the quality of learning for boys and girls. Good-quality teaching is the most important thing. And she adds that children’s attitudes toward reading are largely formed by the time they enter school — which puts dads on the hook. Says Dr. Lavin, “Fathers certainly have a role to play in giving their sons positive attitudes toward reading.”

Related: Why Dad is So Darn Important

6. What about that other gender gap that we used to hear a lot about — the one that saw girls lagging behind in math and science?

There’s good news on this one: the math and science gender gap has been pretty much closed. The most recent PCAP testing (administered in 2007) found that 13-year-old boys and girls perform at similar levels in math and science, and the latest round of PISA testing found basically the same thing on an international level. That being said, there is still work to be done at higher levels — men still vastly outnumber women in post-secondary programs and professions in fields like computer science and engineering.

7. How was the gap closed?

Certainly there were lots of factors, but a simple change in attitude was at least part of the solution. A 2006 University of British Columbia study demonstrated the striking influence that attitude can have on achievement. One group of women in the study was told that females don’t excel at math because of genetic factors, while another group was told that women don’t do as well because of external factors. They were then asked to complete math problems. “As a result of hearing those stories, the women performed differently on the math problems,” says Dr. Lavin. “When they heard that they’re not good at math, and that’s just the way they were born, they didn’t do as well.”

Extrapolated out to society as a whole, it’s fair to say that changing attitudes about women in math and science contributed to their collective advancement. Thus, it’s heartening to know that busting stereotypes and simply believing that something is possible can have a profound impact on educational outcomes.

In contrast to the general trends, contributing editor Tim Johnson very much enjoyed reading as a youngster. And he thinks best while sitting down.

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