Do boys learn in a different way to girls?

Boy doing maths work
Research shows boys are lagging behind girls in reading, writing, maths and science. If the teaching is the same, is gender the issue? Emily Organ explores boys' achievement in the classroom.

Boys’ underachievement at school is not a new problem. In 1995, Ofsted identified the issue in its report The Gender Divide. Since then boys have caught up slightly and there have been a number of educational programmes and initiatives to improve boys’ performance at school. Still, the education system doesn’t seem to be helping boys in the way it does girls.

How do boys learn best?

In a study of boys’ achievement at secondary school, Ofsted pinpointed a few factors: “Boys tend to respond well to teachers who set clear limits and high expectations, direct work strongly, show enthusiasm for their subjects, use humour and reward good work. There is evidence that boys are rather less inclined than girls to learn from indifferent teaching.”

“Boys in particular seem to value individual attention and tend to work harder when they know they are being monitored closely. They respond well when given help to organise their coursework and to plan their revision.”

What to do if you’re worried about your son’s learning

As a parent it can be worrying to think your son may not be working to his full ability at school, especially if the teaching style there school doesn’t play to his strengths. However, you can do plenty to support his learning.

In an Ofsted study, it was found that in primary schools where boys achieved more the schools worked closely with parents in developing their child’s reading and writing skills. “Some schools encouraged parents to join pupils at homework clubs ... and this gave parents additional insight into the tasks being set and the approach to writing development or the teaching of spelling,” stated the findings.

If your child is at a school which doesn’t appear to work closely with parents, speak to your child’s teacher or head teacher or put your concerns to the school governors. It may be possible to put a scheme in places where parents volunteer at school.

There’s also anecdotal evidence to suggest the dominance of female teaching staff in primary schools may help girls’ learning more than boys’. So schemes which encourage dads or grandfathers to get involved could help provide role models for boys. According to Ofsted, “Extra-curricular activities make a significant contribution to boys’ views of school.” So after school clubs run by male teaching staff or dads could be beneficial.

Every child is different

It can be argued that it’s slightly simplistic to divide learning differences between boys and girls. After all, each child is different.

“Studies on gender suggest that there are indeed differences between the way boys and girls learn, this however does not give the entire picture,” says Mary Blake, Educational Consultant at ePace. “New advances in technology are giving us increasing knowledge about how the brain processes information. It is therefore beneficial to look at how each individual, regardless of gender, processes, retains and recalls information. Teachers can then look at the most effective way of reaching the learning potential of every child in the class and advise parents about ways they can support their child’s learning at home.”

By being supportive of your children’s learning style, you can help your child achieve their best – whether boy or girl.