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Why clever girls accept second place

New light has been shed on how the battle of the sexes begins in school. Neil Munro weighs the evidence

Girls could be their own worst enemies in classrooms by encouraging boys to dominate and teachers may be subconsciously colluding. These are the main messages from more than 90 experts at home and abroad whose work has been reviewed by Christine Howe, reader in psychology at Strathclyde University and director of the university's centre for research into interactive learning.

But activity by boys is not always productive. They achieve domination by restlessness, raising their hands in class or misbehaving, rather than by shining at their work. Girls acquiesce, according to Dr Howe's findings, by asking boys for help.

Teachers may reinforce these differences by the decisions they make about who takes part in class discussions. Boys make more contributions than girls and their contributions are usually more elaborate, the research tells us. Misbehaviour also means that boys are more closely monitored.

Boys appear to have the upper hand even when working in small groups, Dr Howie says in Gender and Classroom Interaction, published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education. "They dominate the physical context, volunteering for practical demonstrations in science and controlling the mouse and keyboard in computing," the report states.

It continues: "They do the same where the emphasis is on talk. Research into oral assessment suggests that boys interrupt girls more than the reverse. " Girls do show some resentment, for example when boys physically help out during group work with computers. But, the report adds, there are signs that girls do not only comply with the situation; they help create it.

"In structured group work, girls request help more often than boys, and when they are in mixed groups direct their requests to boys." Girls approached teachers for individual assistance more often than boys.

Girls' apparent submissiveness appears to pay off since they are rapidly outstripping boys in academic performance. Dr Howe says that there is little relationship between classroom interaction and academic performance. The limited research available produces "mixed messages", she states.

The key question therefore is whether differences in classroom interaction are significant. Dr Howe's report points out that while boys may push themselves forward verbally and physically we should not assume that girls are entirely passive. "Soliciting contributions is a highly active process," the report comments, "and girls do this more frequently than boys."

Dr Howe is clear that different forms of male and female behaviour at school are significant in themselves because of the effect they have on later attitudes and confidence. "Girls are not so keen to speak out in the workplace and in public," she says. One study found that men interrupt women more at work.

Schools, however, have to deal with patterns of behaviour instilled from an early age. One study observed a group of children aged two to five working on a jigsaw puzzle in the presence of an adult. It found that girls were three times as likely as the boys to ask the adult for help.

But do schools exacerbate matters even if they have to resign themselves to assertiveness lurking in the genes? There is some evidence for this, Dr Howe believes, particularly in girls' growing dislike of computing at school. This contrasts with one finding that five-year-old and six-year-old girls were as interested in computing as boys with neither showing signs of "antagonism and competitiveness".

Dr Howe's conclusion is that "the school experience does more than simply tolerate what already exists". She urges action but acknowledges that teachers may find it difficult to address the problem because "the behaviours are subtle". Work on the "girls into science and technology project" more than 10 years ago found that teachers were surprised to be told that they gave more attention to boys.

"Moreover when they tried to alter their behaviour to achieve equal attention, they felt that they were devoting disproportionately more time to girls. This made them feel uncomfortable, and several reported that they were being unfair to the boys."

Dr Howe says she favours highly structured group tasks as a way forward but does not support "gender apartheid" in which boys and girls are split into separate groups. There is no evidence that this works, she says, and it was in any case "putting off the evil day".

But Peter Downes, a past president of the Secondary Heads' Association in England which has just issued a publication entitled Can Boys Do Better?, told Scottish secondary heads last year that one experiment in Essex led to boys and girls doing better when they were "gender set". Girls said they could concentrate on their work because boys were not "clowning about", while the boys' group was competitive and teacher focused.

In the best traditions of research, Dr Howe says there is a need for further research.

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