The gender gap: why do boys do worse than girls at school?
New research suggests boys underperform because we expect them to
It is widely accepted that girls have stolen the march on boys when it comes to excelling in the classroom. Reports of higher grades, a keener interest in study and an all-round better attitude to education have been attributed to females. Studies of Irish children in fourth class have shown girls consistently outperforming boys in literacy. But psychology researchers in Britain have cast doubts on assumptions about why boys don’t perform as well as girls. They suggest social attitudes could play a significant role in how boys apply themselves at school.
The recent study, at the University of Kent, revealed that boys are falling behind girls because they are constantly being told they are not up to scratch. The research, which involved about 600 children aged four to 10, found that boys felt their teachers and parents did not expect them to do as well as girls, and lost their motivation or confidence as a result.
Tests showed belief in their own academic inferiority could translate into lower school grades among boys. The results, published in the Child Development journal, showed that by the time boys are seven years old they equate girls with higher achievement at school. Girls believe they are higher achievers by the time they have reached the age of four.
Bonny Hartley, a PhD student who led the study, says: “We sought to examine the age at which children develop stereotypes surrounding boys’ underachievement at school, how these stereotypes can impair boys’ test performance through stereotype threat, and how to counteract them.
“Our research showed that from the age of four, girls thought they were better than boys at school, believing they understood their work better, did better, were more motivated and better behaved. From the age of seven, boys rated themselves collectively as worse than girls.
“In a follow-up study,” she says, “we showed that when children were reminded of this stereotype and asked to sit a test of reading, writing and maths, boys did worse compared to a control group of similar boys who were not reminded of the stereotype.
“Girls were not affected by being reminded that they were expected to be better than boys; that is, they didn’t get better. In a second follow-up experiment, we told children that girls and boys were expected to do equally well. This made boys do better and didn’t affect girls; that is, they didn’t get worse.”
Hartley says that although previous research has focused on a variety of reasons boys might lag behind academically, this is the first to investigate the possibility that negative feedback could produce negative results.
“There are several explanations of boys’ underachievement,” says Hartley. “These have centred on alleged biological differences, different learning styles, teacher expectations, a lack of male role models and the feminisation of the classroom.
“These explanations themselves may perpetuate gender stereotypes. Many strategies and initiatives have been proposed and implemented by teachers, schools and governments in an effort to improve boys’ performance. However, they tend to be simplistic and owe more to quick fixes rather than investigation and research. Explanations often rest on shaky theoretical assumptions and shaky or even absent empirical evidence which tend to reflect crude generalisations about all boys and all girls.
“Our research represents the first systematic empirical investigation of the possibility that boys’ educational achievement is being hindered by the self-perpetuating nature of adverse stereotypes, as seen in the stereotype threat phenomenon.”