Are girls harder to teach than boys?

Females are good at passing exams and using coloured pencils, but does real understanding of topics elude them?

Girls are easier to discipline than boys - they'll mostly do what you tell them. But they are harder to teach because they have an instinctive fear of intellectual exploration. They like their work to be neat and correct. They like to be in agreement. Say something to them and they will write it down, and then regurgitate it.

Real teaching is more than communicating what is generally known and what is required by the syllabus in modular, bite-sized pieces. It is giving the student a sufficient grasp of the basic skills of the subject to synthesise and cross-reference and explore, to allow them to make it their own. Most learning happens by re-working, by opposition, by wrestling with an idea so it becomes part of a mental model.

Girls don't spontaneously wrestle, they listen. The stroppy ones who argue, often do so to express a personal resentment of some kind - sometimes against the teacher, but more usually against the world. What they want is attention, and what you end up doing is wooing them, winning them over, so they'll work for you.

Girls instinctively ask "what?", not "why?" or "how?". "Tell us what the examiner wants us to say". The demand, "prove it!" is usually male. While a boy is arguing the girls will often be rolling their eyes because they want to get on. To them getting on is getting the notes down and the class over with. They want to please the teacher and they confuse argument with unpleasantness.

They prefer learning about to learning. They don't like science and maths, subjects which deal in abstractions and require solitary mental effort. The educational establishment explores ways of making maths and science more female-friendly, by including information about scientists and mathematicians, by studying the application of scientific discoveries. But as far as science and maths are concerned, biographies are useless, and knowing the applications, though interesting, doesn't approach understanding the subject.

The lack of real understanding in a girl is easy to overlook. For some subjects, maths particularly, you need the foundations very early. In the primary classroom, girls get by with their greater facility for language, written and spoken, and their goody-good habits attract less attention from the teacher. They fill in the worksheets, illustrate and underline with coloured pens. Later, in secondary school, it is hard to stop girls from wanting to illustrate their work, and write it out again very neatly: they resist the notion that it is not illustration and decoration which is required, but analysis.

Of course girls can think, but most of them need to be challenged to do it, and their tendency to cling to the known and accepted means that they find the uncertainty of intellectual exploration uncomfortable. They often attribute magical powers to the teacher. If they don't understand something, they will ask for extra help when they should think it out for themselves.

Girls, if pressed, will seek out information from reference books or surf the net, but they'd prefer the teacher to tell them. The nerd quality that many boys have, where they obsess about something, like computers, and acquire impressive skills in it by doing it all the time, is alien to girls.

Girls are easier to coerce. They are easier to coach for our current examinations: coursework biased, often writing about rather than doing. Narrower syllabuses, more targeted and shorter examinations, suit girls very well. But as to teaching them - ah, that's another matter.

Anabel Donald's latest novel, "Be Nice", is published by Jonathan Cape. She has taught for 36 years mainly in the independent sector, where she has been a headmistress and housemistress

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