Is it possible to create a more ‘gender balanced’ learning environment? Natalie Griffiths explains how she investigated the effect of gender on learning in the D&T classroom and developed strategies to benefit pupils of both sexes

My research project was undertaken as part of a Gatsby Fellowship relating to a Master’s degree research study. It was conducted at Cottingham High School, an 11-18 mixed comprehensive in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Year 7 students were used as the focus for the research, which involved academic study, surveys and lesson observation using new media technology.

Project aims

The aims of my project were to:

  • understand the theory behind gender difference: Do girls and boys learn differently? Why?
  • research the interaction between girls, boys and the resources and machinery they use within the design and technology workshop to identify trends
  • devise solutions that can be applied in the design and technology workshop to overcome gender difference issues and raise achievement.

Why do girls and boys behave differently?

The first stage of my research was to identify what evidence there was that could explain why boys and girls behave, and consequently learn, differently. Through academic research I discovered that reasons for gender difference can be categorised into three main areas – biological, neurological and psychological.

Neurological differences

Differences in the male and female brain and their possible influence on behaviour and learning have been extensively researched, although many results have been inconclusive. There is some belief that the types of ability that differ by sex are roughly the same as those that differentiate the brain’s hemispheres in function. Problem-solving tasks that favour women are said to be those that involve perceptual speed, displacement, ideational fluency, verbal fluency, precision manual tasks or mathematical calculation. Those favouring men involve spatial tasks, mentally rotating/manipulating an object, target-directed motor skills, disembedding tests and mathematical reasoning.


Biological differences

Biological theorists believe that gender differences are natural and therefore unalterable. Sexual dimorphism (male-female differences) in the structure of the body and its organs are largely controlled by hormones. The secondary school years are crucial, with teenagers passing through puberty and experiencing massive hormonal changes. These hormones have differing effects on the nervous system and influence both physiological processes and behaviour. It is this effect on the nervous system that can cause typical traits such as girls being more emotive and having greater verbal ability and boys adopting more aggressive characteristics with greater spatial ability.

Psychological differences

There are many researchers who have attempted to prove the theory that at birth males and females are the same and that it is the way they are treated that gives them what we consider typical male and female characteristics. Powerful stereotypes operate in the classroom and in a school that generally affect the performance of those subject to them, be they ones of gender, ethnicity or social class. The impact that teachers can have on a child’s gender identity and, consequently, the way they perform in class is not to be underestimated. A teacher’s prediction of a pupil’s behaviour can be communicated to them, despite being unintended, and influence the actual behaviour that follows. Byrne (1978) stated that ‘no single influence for conservation of change, for creating insurmountable hurdles or new opportunities, will ever be as seminal as that of the teachers in our schools.’

Is there really an issue?

Educational literature and personal experience appear to indicate that boys and girls behave and, consequently, learn differently, but do these differences really create an issue within the design and technology workshop? To verify that there was an issue to be resolved I undertook two methods of research – student survey and lesson observation. Cottingham High School is an 11-18 comprehensive situated in the East Riding of Yorkshire. This is where I conducted my research, focusing on pupil conduct in the resistant materials workshop. I used Year 7 pupils as the focus as they have never before experienced lessons in a workshop environment. I felt that this ensured an unbiased view on working practice prior to their first practical design and technology lessons. My research took two forms – a survey and observation using new media technology. The survey asked 120 pupils (60 girls and 60 boys) their feelings regarding levels of confidence when using hand tools, the pillar drill and the bench sander. The results demonstrated that girls’ confidence dropped considerably when using machinery independently, almost twice as many boys feeling confident in using equipment on their own with no support nearby. Pupils had the option of making a comment about what they liked/disliked about lessons in the workshop. As expected, most girls made comments referring to their dislike of the dust in the workshop and the equipment that seemed dangerous. Boys also made comments such as this, however, disliking the dust and noise associated with the workshop. Some boys’ views were unexpected and it was at this point of my research that I realised that it is not just girls who have the need for strategies to improve confidence; there are many boys who also lose out to those with more confidence in the workshop. My second method of establishing a need for gender balance strategies was to film a class undertaking practical activities for analysis. A Year 7 class was selected, for reasons previously discussed, but they were not informed of the filming until the end of the lesson to ensure that this did not influence their behaviour. Pupils were working on the manufacture of ‘mini-beasts’, which involved a range of tasks requiring the use of hand tools, the pillar drill, bench sander and finishing. The teacher allowed pupils to work where they wanted – there was no seating plan – and pupils were not guided in the tasks they completed. Analysis of the film enabled me to draw the following general conclusions:

  • girls have a preference for painting and light hand-finishing tasks
  • boys have a preference for tasks involving hand tools
  • girls will avoid using machinery if permitted
  • boys least enjoy using the bench sander
  • if girls do undertake activities involving hand tools or machinery they rarely do so independently
  • girls support other girls when undertaking practical activities and boys support other boys, but rarely is support voluntarily offered between sexes
  • girls and boys choose to work in same sex friendship groups
  • boys who lack confidence in the workshop tend to react to practical activities in the same way as girls and choose to work near to or with girls
  • girls tend to use limited workshop space
  • boys make full use of the workshop space and equipment available
  • boys will take tools from other workbenches without requesting permission
  • boys tend to receive more teacher attention.

The results from both my survey and observation indicated that there were issues regarding gender difference and design and technology workshop activities that needed addressing. The next stage of my research was to develop strategies that could help overcome these issues.

Eight steps to a gender-balanced workshop

These eight strategies for addressing the issues previously identified have been devised through research and personal experience. Clearly there are differing circumstances within every school and every teacher has their own styles and teaching methods. 1. Ensure that the workshop environment is clean, tidy and stimulating. All pupils, but particularly girls, may respond better to a workshop environment that is well lit, has low noise and dust, modern machinery and stimulating display. 2. Present the curriculum and individual projects to pupils with enthusiasm and a non-gender stereotypical approach – manufacture products that appeal to both sexes. Many teachers underestimate the impact they have on pupil’s interest and enthusiasm when they first introduce a scheme of work. It is vital that both boys and girls have enthusiasm for designing and making a product. 3. Present curriculum materials in a form that will appeal to both boys and girls. Consider curriculum material content carefully when developing it – will the format and content appeal to both girls and boys? Is there a good combination of both diagrams and text within the tasks? Have stereotypical images been avoided? 4. Use physical and computer modelling within projects to enable boys to produce quality design development evidence. Boys tend to rush design in order to get to making activities as quickly as possible. Designing needs to be made more appealing to boys – aesthetic results need to be achieved quickly and easily. 5. Distribute your attention equally between boys and girls. Girls’ lack of confidence is often over-compensated for by the teacher where more help and advice is offered than is actually needed. This has a negative effect on their confidence and consequent achievement. 6. Arrange pupils around work benches in mixed-sex groups to improve the quality of interaction between boys and girls. Pupils choose to sit in friendship groups, which automatically creates a gender difference within the classroom. Teachers often unintentionally reinforce this by referring to groups of pupils as ‘lads’ and ‘girls’. A simple seating plan can overcome this. Apply peer assessment and pupil-to-pupil demonstration techniques to promote interaction between the sexes – the strengths of each sex can then benefit the other. 7. Limit pupils to working within an allocated space – allocate tools to specific workbenches to avoid unnecessary movement around the room. Boys can tend to dominate the workshop; strategies need to be in place to prevent intimidation and ‘hogging’ of tools and equipment. Behaviour issues can also be overcome if pupils’ movement is restricted. 8. Employ a ‘chit’ system when using machinery. Boys tend to dominate the use of machinery, particularly the most dangerous. This can be easily overcome with the introduction of a ‘chit’ system to manage pupil’s use of equipment. Issue pupils with a numbered card to ensure that pupils take turns at using machines and that equal opportunities are available for all. Frequent skills-based activities and health and safety demonstrations could be consciously employed to increase girls’ confidence. These strategies are reasonably straightforward and do not require much extra effort from the teacher but do they actually work? Further research was undertaken to answer this question.

Do the strategies work?
To judge the effectiveness of my suggested gender balance strategies I filmed a further Year 7 class, but this time with some key strategies in use. Pupils were positioned around workbenches in mixed-sex groups and allocated specific tools and equipment to avoid unnecessary movement around the room. The teacher was advised to frequently stop pupils and refocus them on safe working practice and use of machines. He was also advised to be conscious of how much time he was spending with both sexes and to try to keep this equal. Chits were also given to the teacher for issue to pupils as they required the use of machinery. Analysis of the film revealed positive results. The chart above shows the average times spent by boys and girls on particular tasks. Without strategies in place girls chose to spend the majority of their time undertaking finishing activities. The introduction of a chit system and a gender-balanced approach resulted in both sexes spending a more balanced amount of time on each type of activity.

The results of my research study provide evidence that employing key strategies can benefit pupils of both sexes in ensuring that their achievement within practical workshop sessions is not hindered by gender difference issues.

Thanks to Dr David Withey, independent education consultant, Blackpool LEA, John Moores University


Suggestions for further reading

  • Kimura, D (1992) Sex Differences in the Brain. Scientific American.
  • Maccoby, EE and Jacklin, CN (1974) The Psychology of Sex Differences. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Palardy, JM (1969) ‘What teachers believe – what children achieve’, Elementary School Journal, 69.
  • Stanworth, M (1983) Gender and Schooling. London: Hutchinson.
  • For information regarding education and gender issues visit: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/genderandachievement
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