Boys will be boys
When teenage boys are asked to read their creative writing out in class, they are more concerned about appearing "laddish" to their peers than impressing the teacher, according to psychologist Gabrielle Ivinson. Dr Ivinson of Cardiff University and Dr Patricia Murphy of the Open University have been studying the way that male peer group pressure - or "lad culture" - influences the way boys learn.
"Boys talked a lot about male peer group culture which dictates what can be said and how you can behave, and it's policed by other boys," Dr Ivinson told the British Psychological Society's international conference on communication, problem-solving and learning at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, last week.
"Boys use techniques to make sure they don't show emotion or reveal personal aspects of themselves because it's too dangerous for them, and this influences the way they learn."
For instance, one Year 9 boy read out a story about a deformed banana - to the hilarity of male classmates - but confessed afterwards that he was really thinking about what it was like to be deformed, an outsider. And the boy made it clear that there were different audiences to please: "When I came to do my real writing for GCSE coursework, I ditched the banana," he told her.
However, "by not being allowed to express emotion or write descriptively, boys are practising techniques that become more highly prized later on at A-level and university - analytical argument and logical and rational writing."
Descriptive or emotional writing - where girls do well - were more favoured at GCSE, said Dr Ivinson "whereas at A-level the techniques of tackling a subject indirectly are more valued".
Patricia Murphy has also investigated attempts to tackle boys' underachievement by strategies such as single-sex classes or gendered seating plans. She believes that such interventions are more concerned with controlling behaviour than in engaging boys in a subject, and tend not to work.
Dr Ivinson said that US research from the 1990s showed that strategies to improve girls' performance had worked equally well with boys. "The idea of boys' under-achieving arose as a moral panic in 1998, but it's not substantiated by the evidence," she said.
"It would be better to get teachers to improve their teaching across the board," she added.
But Dr Murphy found that teachers often treat boys and girls differently. Teachers of English would ask boys to give an oral football commentary, while girls tackled a play based on the class reader. Teachers also colluded with students when they perceived that a task was "gender inappropriate". For example, when boys openly resisted drawing pink flesh in art classes, their teacher did little to challenge them.