Steve Mynard considers gender differences in schools by looking at the social, emotional, intellectual and physical contrasts to bear in mind when teaching boys and girls. He explains we may need to treat them differently in order to give equal opportunities in school to both sexes

We live in a world rich in data – possibly too rich! The statistics from the Foundation Stage Profile Results for England for 2007-08 show that girls continue to outperform boys in all 13 assessment scales. The gap is particularly wide in the following areas:

  • social development (10 percentage points difference between boys and girls)
  • emotional development (11 percentage points)
  • linking sounds and letters (11 percentage points)
  • writing (18 percentage points)
  • reading (11 percentage points)
  • creative development (14 percentage points).

A report from the Rowntree Foundation in 2007 found that these early gender differences reflect a pattern that can continue right up to age 16, when boys outnumber girls by 20% as low achievers at GCSE. 

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There is a growing realisation that our education system is ‘girl friendly’. The only way to tackle boys’ underachievement is for practitioners to understand the developmental differences between boys and girls and to plan for teaching and learning accordingly.

The new EYFS framework is a step in the right direction in that it pays more than just lip service to developmental issues. The guidance does not, however, go into detail about the social, emotional, intellectual and physical differences between boys and girls at this age. It is these differences that underpin gender differences in approaches to learning and ultimately in attainment.

Social differences
From my experience of teaching in a Reception class, I have found that the girls are friendlier towards each other. The boys tend to be more antagonistic. The girls generally try to resolve any disagreement over access to resources amicably. If they can’t, then they ask an adult to get involved and each side will explain the situation in the expectation that the adult with sort the matter out. In contrast, most of the boys will try to resolve a disagreement by the use of force – by grabbing, shoving or shouting. If this doesn’t work, one or two of them cry.

In Australia, a nationwide report on students’ social development found that, while many boys and girls get along well with others, more girls than boys feel that it is important to relate well to others, contribute to community wellbeing and adhere to rules and conventions. The study concluded that ‘boys are less concerned with these aspects of social development than are girls’ (Ainley et al, 1998). The gap gets wider as children get older. The report comments, ‘Empathy may operate as a brake on aggressive behaviour. Much of the research into empathy has reported a consistent gender pattern, with girls showing higher levels of empathy than boys’. It is these empathic skills that allow girls to reach the higher levels of our EYFS assessment scales.

While there is some evidence of a link between the differences in the brain structure in boys and girls and their development of social skills, there is plenty of evidence that social conditioning plays a big part, too. Parents just don’t seem to be able to help themselves! Girls are actively encouraged to be ‘kind and friendly’ (ie, passive) and boys are taught to ‘stand up for yourself’ (ie, be aggressive).

There will, of course, be other important factors that have an influence on the social development of young children. Being an only child, for example, seems to be a significant contributing factor to any difficulties a child may experience with the development of the skills needed to manage conflict. A child’s position in the family, his or her degree of attachment to a carer, and care arrangements before and after school may all play a role. Gender, however, is an important difference that practitioners need to take into account in the planning of activities to promote and develop social interaction.

Emotional differences
Around the age of four to five, some very interesting changes take place in children’s ability to understand, control and express emotions. At this age children acquire the ability to alter their emotional expression. They may feel hurt on the inside after a disagreement, but they smile and say it doesn’t matter. This is an important skill for children to develop from the point of view of society – otherwise we would all be going around telling everyone what we really thought of them!

The ability to feel one way inside and express it outwardly in a different way is known as ‘display rules’. According to Janice Zeman of the University of Maine, this skill ‘requires that children understand the need to alter emotional displays, take the perspective of another, know that external states need not match internal states, have the muscular control to produce emotional expressions, be sensitive to social contextual cues that alert them to alter their expressivity, and have the motivation to enact such discrepant displays in a convincing manner.’ These are complex skills for children to master. This is reflected in the EYFS Profile Assessment Scales, with ‘consideration of the consequences of words and actions on themselves and others’ being classified as a higher-order skill.

There is evidence that a group of neurons in the brain, collectively called the amygdala, has a strong influence on emotions, particularly on the memory of emotional reactions. The amygdala is linked to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain which plays a key role in thought and language. Girls, who appear to be able to talk about their feelings sooner than boys, develop the connection between the amygdala and the cerebral cortex much earlier than boys (Sax, 2006).

Children who have difficulties with their emotions may play up, or they may withdraw from situations. In my own class, I found that the boys would tend to behave in negative ways during emotional situations. In the context of display rules, they had not yet learned how to feel one way and express themselves in another, more socially acceptable way.

Intellectual differences
The evidence from the EYFS Profile shows that the difference between boys’ and girls’ attainment is greater in reading and writing, but much less so in numeracy and physical development, and lowest of all in knowledge and understanding of the world.

Research into the physical structure of the brain does show differences between boys and girls, which may go some way to explaining differential attainment (Nikolaenko, 2005). Girls consistently show an advantage over boys in verbal abilities, which may be related to differences in the organisation of the brain. Girls acquire language earlier than boys and are able to concentrate for longer during a conversation. Girls have better memories and can retrieve information from the memory more quickly. Boys, on the other hand, tend to be more visually and spatially aware and are often better at throwing and catching, for example. They are better at mental manipulation of images, which may benefit problem-solving, design and construction skills.

While there is increasing evidence for a genetic influence on gender differences in intellectual development, the influence of nurture and environment is still acknowledged to be strong. The debate now is less about nature versus nurture and more about what percentage each contributes to gender differences.

Family and social influence have an impact, with girls’ rights as learners having been more strongly asserted in recent decades. Girls now outperform boys across the board academically. One of the reasons we can be a little apprehensive about discussing gender differences and
the impact that this is having on boys’ underachievement may be that we don’t want to downplay the progress that females have made in recent times.

Physical differences
Gross motor skills such as running, jumping and climbing tend to develop slightly faster in boys. Fine motor skills, including the ability to hold and use a pencil, develop faster in girls. This may be one factor in giving girls an advantage in school (Piek, 2006). There is also some evidence that boys’ physically aggressive, impulsive play and risk-taking behaviour may be linked to brain development. The male hormone testosterone causes brain development in the left hemisphere of the growing foetus to slow and allows the right hemisphere to dominate. The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with visual-spatial functions and the left with language. It is, of course, far more complex than that and, when it comes to brain function, individual differences within gender may be greater than the difference between genders. It is also important to understand that while some functions of the left or right hemisphere of the brain may be preferred by particular individuals, the word ‘dominate’ is probably overused. In reality, the two hemispheres of the brain work in a much more integrated way than is generally believed.

Putting this complexity to one side, those of us who work with young children know that generally, boys are more physically active and ‘take up a lot of space outdoors’, whereas girls will sit down and get on with a task.

Are gender differences important?
Evidence from brain research is not absolutely conclusive. Neither are behavioural studies looking at the impact of nurture and environment on the social, emotional, intellectual and physical development of young children. What we do know from personal experience is that boys and girls are different. While there are boys who like to sit and write and girls who like to build space rockets, it is generally true that boys and girls have different approaches to learning. As early years practitioners, we must provide different opportunities in order to ensure that the needs of all are met.

In looking at developmental differences, it is clear that in most areas, boys will develop the learning skills that girls have; it just takes them longer. In which case, why the large gap at age 16? Surely boys would have caught up by then? We need to think in terms of the impact that getting it wrong at a young age could have on the learner’s future development. If we are not providing boys with play activities that meet their needs when they are three, four or five, they are more likely to switch off from school and learning. This pattern becomes ingrained and they carry it with them through the rest of their school lives. This is why the early years are so important.

In my second article looking at the differences between boys and girls, I share my own experience of how gender differences – whether by nature or nurture – were displayed in the disparate behaviour and learning styles of a group of reception-class children. As I discovered, these differences provided not only the motivation but also the means for enriching everyone’s learning experience – including my own!

References:

  • Ainley, J et al 1998. Schools and the Social Development of Young Australians. Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne, Victoria
  • Nikolaenko, NN 2005. Sex Differences and Activity of the Left and Right Brain Hemispheres. Journal of Evolutionary Biology and Physiology, v41 no 6
  • Piek, JP 2006. Infant Motor Development. p156, Human Kinetics
  • Rowntree Foundation report 2007, Tackling Low Educational Achievement
  • Sax, L. 2006. Why Gender Matters, Broadway
  • Zeman, J. 1996, in Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, Gale
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