Educating boys – and girls

This article was originally published in the April 2010 print edition of Teacher.

Forget the idea of male and female brains; it’s the different ways we treat boys and girls that lead to differences in school attainment, says Catherine Scott.

Psychologists who study attitudes have discovered that the most difficult attitudes to change are those that are connected to peoples’ identities. Absolutely central to identity is gender. What’s the first thing we want to know about a new baby? Is it a boy or a girl? Parents are careful to dress their babies in particular ways to signal their baby’s gender to the world, and if they dress their infant in the ‘wrong’ colour, others are quick to let them know that they strongly disapprove. It’s not surprising when it comes to attitudes to gender, then, that there are hot debates over the nature of men and women, and boys and girls, and that these continue despite some decades of evidence and argument that gender differences are small and often not particularly significant. Differences that do exist often disappear where boys and girls are treated the same. An example is the gap in attainment in mathematics between boys and girls, which doesn’t occur in societies characterised by more gender equality than our own, for example in Scandinavia.

Despite this, maintaining traditional gender beliefs is certainly the case in education, where supposed differences between boys and girls are regularly rediscovered, and where such rediscoveries usually lead to calls for boys to be educated differently.

The motivation for the search for the right way to educate boys is the continuing underperformance of a significant subgroup of boys, and note, this is a subgroup, not all boys. The trouble, because gender is so significant for personal identity, is that we’re particularly susceptible to arguments that there are fundamental, biological differences in, say, ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains and that these explain variations in educational achievement. We’re also susceptible to arguments that boys have a different ‘learning style’ that requires different teaching approaches.

The real reason why a significant group of boys, and also many girls, underperform at school doesn’t lie in biology, and people’s anxiety about how babies are dressed provides the clue about where we should really look for explanations. The origin of the disapproval of babies wearing the wrong colours is deep disquiet over not knowing how to treat the baby. Adults interact with and interpret the behaviour of babies quite differently according to whether the infant is male or female.

The classic experiment on the issue was performed in the 1960s when interactions were observed between adults and a baby, at times dressed in pink and called Jane and at other times dressed in blue and called John.

Adults attempted to soothe baby Jane if she cried because she was ‘upset.’ Baby John, on the other hand, received more stimulating or rough-and-tumble play and if he cried he was ‘angry.’

Research from developmental and educational psychology has shown how these differences in treatment lead directly to differences in school attainment.

Starting right at birth, girl and boy babies are spoken to and interacted with in quite different ways. The degree of difference varies from family to family and some people treat their boys in similar ways to their girls or vice a versa. Even so, there are average differences in the type of parenting that babies receive that have profound effects in later life.

Parents tend to talk to girl babies more, to show them more affection and, when they’re a little older, to give them more instructions and make more attempts to control them. Boys, on the other hand, are spoken to less, controlled less and shown less concern and affection.

Australian research has shown that the differences persist when the babies become toddlers and pre-schoolers. Girls are more likely to receive ‘authoritative’ parenting that is, to receive both high levels of warmth and affection and lots of socialisation. They will be expected to learn how to behave well, but will also have the rules and expectations, and the reasons behind them, explained, and will have some say in what the rules are.

Boys, on the other hand, experience a mixture of neglectful and authoritarian – ‘Because I say so!’ – parenting. The common pattern is to leave boys to get on unguided and unhindered until their behaviour becomes too disruptive, dangerous or unacceptable. At that point, some parents come down hard, often by using corporal punishment, but rarely by engaging in a reasoned discussion with the child.

Differences in parenting styles are known to be associated with different outcomes for children. Those who experience authoritative parenting tend to be socially skilled, mature, self-confident and responsible, and to do well in school while mostly staying out of trouble. Children who have been parented in an authoritarian manner, or neglectfully, miss out on many of these advantages.

Inconsistent parenting of the type boys often receive has been shown to have negative outcomes for children, who are likely to experience emotional, behavioural and cognitive problems as a consequence.

It isn’t hard to fit the typical boy and typical girl stereotypes to these outcomes and patterns of behaviour. And it’s easy to see how differences in parenting set up boys and girls for very different school experiences and subsequent learning outcomes.

British researchers Pam Sammons, Karen Elliot, Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Brenda Taggart investigated how home experiences influence educational outcomes. Their findings provide more evidence for the argument that gender differences aren’t brain differences but the result of variations in the ways boys and girls are treated. Their studies reveal that parents differ in the ‘home learning environment’ that they provide for their children and that this predicts how well their children do in school.

Children who have parents who play games with them designed to teach letters and number concepts, sing songs and regularly read to them, take them to the library and provide them with art and craft equipment do well in school. These good outcomes are experienced regardless of the family’s social class. Children from families with few resources or low income but who have been provided with a good home learning environment are just as likely to do well at school as children from better-resourced homes. On the other hand, children from wealthy homes that don’t offer a good learning environment do poorly in school.

Significantly, Sammons and colleagues found, boys and girls often differ in the home learning environment they experience: girls, they found, are more likely to experience a good home learning environment than are boys, and the difference translates into higher levels of school attainment for girls.

The idea that male and female brains differ in large and significant ways is intuitively appealing because we’re wedded to the idea that gender really matters. It is, after all, a basic part of our own identity. Gender does matter, but it matters because it determines how we treat other people, most significantly, how we treat children and what we expect from them.

Those who advocate the necessity for special ‘boys’ education’ are asking that boys continue to be treated differently, when boys behave as they do and do less well than they could precisely because they’ve been subjected to the kinds of male socialisation I’ve already described. If we wish to erase the achievement differences between boys and girls at school we should take a long, hard look at what we think boys need. Doing more of what we’re already doing won’t be the answer.

This article was originally published in the April 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.