Gender Differences in Classroom Behaviour

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Investigating the differences in classroom behaviour across the genders


In recent decades there has been an increasing focus on gender differences in an educational context. During the 1970s and 1980s, feminist research on gender and education was motivated by concern at the underachievement, and marginalization, of girls (Francis and Skelton, 2001, p.1). This had been largely due to the different subjects that boys and girls studied, and it was not until the introduction of the National Curriculum which saw boys and girls studying the same subjects for the first time, that the extent of girls’ relative success was revealed (Arnot et al., 1999). Recent years have seen something of a pendulum swing with boys now being a focus for concern. Younger et al. observed in key stage two children a ‘marked disparity between the attainment of boys and girls in English’ with 83 % of girls attaining level 4 in 2004 compared with 72% of boys (Younger et al., 2005, p.20).

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There is, however inconsistency in the research with Myhill suggesting that not all boys are underachieving and neither are all girls academic success stories (Myhill, 2002). The nature of gender in the education is a difficult effect to isolate since class, race and gender are inevitably interrelated and it is difficult to disentangle the individual effect (MacGilchrist, et al., 2006, p.62) and therefore say conclusively that differences in attainment levels are due to gender alone.

The aim of this paper is to investigate the differences in behaviour in respect of gender in the school setting, by looking at the nature of the differences, possible explanations and strategies which teachers can use in the classroom to address these problems, particularly in respect of boys’ underachievement.

Theories of Gender Development:

That there are patterns of behaviour and social organisation that differ according to sex/gender is not in doubt (Francis, 2006, p.8). There are many theories as to why this is the case, some regarding differences as due to the different biological nature of men and women while others argue that there are environmental reasons for the differences, the dichotomy of nature versus nurture (Rose, 2001, p.256). The idea of gender differences has been taken up by feminist theorists who have argued that that femininity is culturally constructed (Weiner, 1994), as is masculinity (Mac an Ghaill, 1994).

Innate Differences:

This is the belief that the sexes are inherently different. Evolutionary biologists see differences in gender as having their roots in our genetic make up, stretching back for many generations. Findings from research by Professor John Stein in connection with his work in the context of dyslexia, indicates that boys brains are generally slower to develop. It is therefore not logical to have the same expectations from boys and girls when they come to school for the first time (Scott, 2003, p.84).

In recent years many biologists and neuroscientist have been critical of the evolutionary approach (Francis, 2006, p.9), leading to the idea that gender specific behaviour is socially constructed, shaped by a number of factors including culture and the environment.

Role Theories:

Role theories suggest that gender characteristics are constructed by observing the ways in which other people adopt typical gender roles, being rewarded for engaging in appropriate behaviour and punished in some way when they do not (Gregory, 1969). Proponents of these theories suggest that girls learn how to be girls by watching demure, feminine behaviour, characteristic of girls, while boys learn to be boisterous and tough. These are images that are portrayed to children by a variety of people in their lives, their parents and carers, their teachers, their siblings and reinforced through the media. School is an important arena for the observation of roles and a school policy concerning equal opportunities must reflect an awareness of this.

Views on Children’s Acquisition of Gender Knowledge:

Skelton and Francis have identified two views on how children acquire their knowledge about gender:

  • Social learning theories which propose that gender identity is learned by children modelling their behaviour on same sex members of their family, peer group, local community as well as the gender stereotypes seen on books and on television;
  • Cognitive development theorists, such as Lawrence Kohlberg, who suggest that a child’s understanding of their gender identity as opposed to their biological sex depends on their stage of cognitive development, their intellectual age.

(Skelton and Francis, 2003, p.12).

Environmental Factors:

It has been suggested that boys and girls are shaped differently by their environment because of the different ways in which they respond to it. Gilligan proposes that girls tend to analyse situations before coming to decisions whereas boys are more likely to stick to rules that they have applied in previous situations. Gilligan suggests that these differences in reaction are as a result of differences in cognitive styles rather than abilities (Gilligan, 1982), but can impact on outcomes in respect of attainment.

Environmental factors have been shown to have an effect on children’s attitudes to and performance at school. Home background and parental levels of educational attainment and expectation have been shown to be factors in the different levels of attainment of boys and girls in school. Research presented by Brooker showed that, while boys and girls did not have any marked differences in ability levels on entry to school, over the course of a year girls made more progress than boys. She found that the most successful group were those who came from large families where they had a lot of home support from their siblings (Brooker, 2002, p. 159). Girls typically work more collaboratively, engaging in more socially constructed activities, enhancing learning in the process.

Boys from some ethnic minorities have been shown to be under performing against all other educational groups. This has been attributed to peer group pressure, with an anti achievement culture believed to be operating among some black teenage boys. This manifests itself in their disrupting schoolwork and generating a low level of expectation among themselves (Aslop and Hicks, 2001, p.148).

The school environment plays an important part in the development of gender attitudes. While it was thought that gender stereotypes would be reinforced by single sex schools, research has shown this not to be the case. When brought together in co educational settings, both boys and girls made more sex stereotypical choices despite a greater variety of facilities. It would therefore appear that co education increases differentiation between the sexes (Leonard, 2006, p.194).

Gender Differences in School:

With an increasing belief that gender is socially constructed, has come an awareness that school is one of the social contexts in which gender appropriate behaviour is defined and constructed (Myhill and Jones, 2006, p.100). The most prominent area for concern has been the development of gendered behaviour leading to the disengaged or alienated male in school. His behaviour, general unruliness and lack of interest are seen as dominating classroom life (Gray and McLellan, 2006, p.652). Many teachers show a strong belief in gender differences, believing them to influence attitudes to school, motivation, maturity, responsibility, behaviour and identification with the school ethos (Arnot and Gubb, 2001). It has been shown that because so many primary school teachers are female, they have not been trained in how boys and girls learn differently (Gurian, 2002, p.126) and traditional teaching styles adopted may favour the learning dispositions of girls.


Teacher expectations are an important factor in achievement. If teachers have high expectations, pupils will be highly motivated to learn and succeed (Aslop and Hicks, 2001, p.148). In respect of boys’ underachievement, evidence has tended to note that teachers have low expectations about boys’ levels of academic achievement (Myhill and Jones, 2006, p.101), research supported in a study by Younger and Warrington that demonstrated that teachers tended to underestimate boys’ achievement at GCSE level, while girls’ achievement tended to be overestimated (Younger and Warrington, 1996).

Teachers have been shown, in addition to having low expectations of boys, to take advantage of girls, enlisting them as allies in the battle to “police, teach, control and civilise boys” (Epstein et al., 1998). It is incumbent on schools therefore to have high expectations for boys and to have mechanisms for transmitting this information to the students and developing high expectations. They must also have a focus on not using girls a pseudo teachers, allowing them to develop an appropriate role in the classroom in the context of their peers.

Perceptions of Boys and Girls:

In studies of primary schools differences have been shown in the ways in which teachers perceived boys and girls. Girls have traditionally been viewed as co operative and conscientious workers with boys being viewed as dominant, demanding but rewarding to teach. Boys have traditionally been viewed as requiring more effort to teach but at the same time having more ability (Skelton and Francis, 2003, p.8).

Boys and Underachievement:

Changes in educational policy in recent years can lead to boys feeling devalued because, in the early years, especially, they find themselves in a world of learning lacking in masculine figures. Research has also shown that girls have a lack of confidence, even when performing well in comparison with boys (Gray and McLellan, 2006, p.653). The challenge is therefore to re-engage boys in the learning process through appropriate activities and motivation and to develop greater degrees of self esteem in girls.

The extraordinary academic progress of girls in recent years has been associated with two features; girls’ continuing advantage in English and their improvement in mathematics and science (Arnot et al., 1999, p.16). As noted above, Gilligan has presented evidence that boys and girls may react to their environment in different ways, but what causes concern for teachers and educators is that maths and science have traditionally been male domains, which now boys are not performing as well in as they have done in the past. Gipps and Murphy expand on this point by suggesting that this should be borne in mind by those who set and mark test papers in order to take into account the different approaches students may adopt when answering questions (Gipps and Murphy, 1994). Schools must give consideration to the strategies being employed to facilitate boys’ learning.

Research carried out by Daniels et al. in the context of special education suggests that girls give each other a great deal of help and support, not something often seen in boys. They speculate that this may have at least three important consequences:

  • It can help reduce the amount of extra support required by girls from their teachers as they are getting a lot of this from their peers;
  • The support is likely to be appropriate because the peers know exactly what type of ‘scaffold’ is needed to facilitate learning;
  • The person giving the support can consolidate their own learning by giving support and teaching someone else.

(Daniels et al., 1996).

Girls have also been shown to give considerable help and attention to boys, helping them by providing equipment and helping them with their homework (Thorne, 1993), reiterating the idea of girls acting as pseudo teachers in the class. Although there is a lot of individual variation amongst males and females, male students of all ages tend to dominate discussions, to make more direct and directive comments to their partners and generally to adopt more ‘executive’ roles in problem solving (Mercer, 2001, p.196).

Working with Boys in the Classroom:

While girls have been perceived as being hard working in the class, it has been argued that peer group pressure among boys makes it difficult for them to slot into this role. Popularity among ones peers and working hard at school can be seen as mutually incompatible and may result in boys being bullied or excluded from friendship groups (Frosh et al., 2002).

The issue in respect of how boys behave in the classroom has been a further area of controversy with arguments ranging from boys being treated less favourably than girls through to boys causing disruption to a degree that hampers learning for other children, but there is evidence to suggest that, regardless of the nature of the interaction, whether positive or negative, teachers do engage more with boys than they do with girls (La France, 1991).

Some of the reasoning behind boys underachievement has been questioned. Biddulph, (1998, cited in MacNaughton, 2006, p.140) has suggested that while boys are often accused of not listening in class, the reality is that they suffer from growing spurts that have an adverse affect on their ear canals. MacNaughton questions the fact that if this is the case for boys, then surely the same must be true for girls (MacNaughton, 2006, p.141), suggesting that the physiological explanations do not provide an adequate explanation.

There has been a great deal of concern for many years about boys’ behaviour in schools, having been expressed as early as 1930 by Brerton who commented “Many girls will work at a subject they dislike. No healthy boy ever does!” (Brerton, 1930, p.95). A major factor that has come to light in a great deal of the research concerning boy’s disaffection with school is that fact that it is multifaceted in its nature, with gender being only one of a number of factors. Bob Connell is among a number of researchers who ahs pointed this out writing, “The making of masculinities in schools is far from the simple learning of norms. It is a process of multiple pathways, shaped by class and ethnicity, producing diverse outcomes.” (Connell, 2000, p.164).

Research presented by Marland suggested that teachers treated boys and girls differently and in doing so amplified society’s stereotypes (Marland, 1983). Research in gender and education has highlighted the negative consequences of the construction of masculinity for many boys in education, with many boys coming into conflict with teachers and other authorities (Skelton, 2001). Some theorists have suggested that this could be addressed by having greater concentrations of male teachers in schools. Thornton and Bricheno have countered this, presenting evidence that greater concentrations of male teachers actually leads to poorer discipline in schools (Thornton and Bricheno, 2002, cited in Skelton and Francis, 2003, p.7).

Assessing Children’s Perceptions:

As with all other teaching and learning that goes on in the school setting, schools must begin the development of the equal opportunity policy in respect of gender by ascertaining the views that the children have, addressing misconceptions, planning what they want to achieve and developing a programme to facilitate this. Skelton suggests that in order to do this the school should begin by asking the following four questions:

  • What images of masculinity and femininity are the children bringing with them into school and what types are they acting out in the classroom and playground?
  • What are the dominant images of masculinity and femininity that the school itself reflects to the children and are these what the school wishes to present?
  • What kinds of role model does the school want and expect of its teachers?
  • What kinds of initiatives/strategies/projects should teachers be undertaking with children to question gender categories?

(Skelton, 2001).

A Europe wide study carried out by Smith and Gorard revealed that boys in several European countries in general felt that they were treated less favourably than girls but the feelings were strongest among boys in the United Kingdom (Smith and Gorard, 2002, cited in Myhill and Jones, 2006, p.102). This is a finding that is echoed throughout the research literature (Wing, 1999; Francis, 2000).

Gender and Mathematics:

Recent decades have seen a shift in emphasis from the focus on girls’ underachievement in mathematics, towards generic ideas concerning mathematics and gender. Research has been carried out by the Girls and Mathematics Unit (Lucey et al., 2003, p.55) has proposed that the characteristics of an ideal mathematics learner is a child who is active, keen to explore and investigate new challenges, ideas central to constructivist theories of learning where learners build on what they know already to assimilate new concepts. It has been argued that these are in fact characteristics more often associated with boys, rather then being gender neutral, suggesting that the ideal child is, in fact an ideal boy (Adams and Walderdine, 1986).

Concerns in respect of a general decline in mathematics led to the adoption of a National Numeracy Strategy. Research has suggested that girls like to work in an investigative way, keen to learn about new things rather than just getting the correct answer, skills that are fostered by the move towards an approach which focuses on learning about learning and developing strategies for developing mathematical skills and explanations.

Clark argues that boys and girls have different ways of exerting their power in the classroom, boys using direct methods such as dominating the classroom dynamics and interacting to a greater degree with the teacher, while girls employ more subtle methods for asserting themselves through working hard and being co operative (Clark 1990), which in turn helps their attainment (Walden and Walkerdine, 1986, p.125), a consequence of their spending more time directly on task.

Lucey at al. suggest, that in the context of whole class teaching, in order for all children to experience success, teachers need to avoid lessons becoming an arena for confident children. They argue that a better use of lesson time is to allow children to work at their own pace, in group or pair contexts, where pupils are allowed to develop their own skills, explore a variety of strategies, and at the same time, develop confidence and self esteem.

Gender and Literacy:

As mentioned above, girls have been performing better than boys in respect of literacy, giving it a central role in the debate about gender and schooling in recent years. Boys’ underachievement in this area has been well documented. In her book Differently Literate, Millard proposed reasons for this, citing one of the main ones as the fact that bots and girls have interests in different aspects of literacy. She argued that boys were largely discriminated against in the school setting where many of the texts available are not related to boys’ interests. The National Literacy Strategy was introduced in 1998, one of the main ideas of which was critical literacy, an idea that texts do not stand alone, but that they are socially constructed making them useful in developing critical literacy skills in respect of gender roles (Marsh, 2003, p. 73). The fact that gender roles are embedded in many of these texts provides opportunities for the challenge of stereotypes by children. This is essential in developing the understanding necessary for overcoming them.

Gender and Science:

The 1990s saw science become one of the success stories in the primary curriculum, following a number of attempts to reduce sex specific behaviours in science and technology. The research concerning children’s perceptions in science has been mixed. Drawing a scientist has been employed as way of ascertaining children’s perceptions. Some studies have shown that children have developed less gendered ideas about scientists and therefore science while other research has suggested that children’s attitudes have not really changed very much (Reiss, 2003, p.82). The nature of science and its subject matter has been the subject of debate in the gender context. While single and mixed sex groupings have both been shown to be effective in teaching and learning in science in some respects, what has been identified as more important is the teacher’s attitudes in respect of gender equity, preferably in the context of a whole school approach to gender issues in science. It is important to facilitate the development of diverse ideas with respect to scientific concepts and to have assessment systems which are fair.

Addressing the Issues:

Head states the implication of gender research for teachers is that if girls and boys:

“prefer different learning procedures then teachers should be flexible in their choice of teaching and assessment methods. But these gender differences are not absolute, there is considerable overlap between the two sexes and considerable variation within one group. A flexible approach to pedagogy should therefore be of general benefit to the school population.” (Head, 1996, p.68). It has been recognised that children work hard to demonstrate their gender identity, not being easily swayed by alternative images (Francis, 1998). Schools do have a responsibility to ensure that they have a policy on sex discrimination, and must ensure that it is being properly implemented.

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In the light of the evidence presented by Francis (above) and others, it is not sufficient for teachers to present alternative views for children. The approach must be more proactive with children being given opportunities to actively challenge stereotypical views that they may hold. The role of the teacher in facilitating gender awareness and equality in the classroom cannot be overestimated. Teachers should avoid using stereo typical language pertaining to gender, should use reading and teaching materials which can be interrogated in respect of gender, and should foster attitudes pertaining to equal opportunities and inclusion in the classroom. Skelton and Francis suggest that this can be achieved in the primary classroom through an active challenge of gender stereotypes, including the following activities:

  • Teachers should ensure that they are involved in a full range of activities in the classroom, paying particular attention that they are not avoiding areas in the classroom traditionally associated with the opposite sex, such as male teachers avoiding the home corner and female teachers avoiding the construction toys;
  • Children should be presented with a range of play and learning activities in which they can be encouraged to challenge gender stereotypes;
  • Teachers should take opportunities, as and when they arise, to discuss issues pertaining to gender, through the use of appropriate materials;
  • When boys or girls are dominating particular play areas or activities, that can be challenged through the use of circle time or class discussion. The teacher can play a role in challenging behaviour through the use of open ended questioning such as “can boys and girls play together with blocks, do you think that of you worked together you could make something better than you can on your own?” In this way the teacher can be encouraging children to be reflective about their roles in the class and in society generally;
  • Teachers need to help children in the development of skills with which they may not normally associate themselves.

(Skelton and Francis, 2003, p.17-18).


The growing body of literature on masculinities and femininities in education has advanced our understandings of the complex ways in which boys and girls construct and negotiate their identities within schools (Jackson, 2006, p.xiv). Research supports the view that pupils take up various positions with respect to attitudes to schooling but, while identifying the existence of clearly gendered pupil types, it challenges the simplistic notions about how boys and girls may differ (Gray and McLellan, 2006, p.654).

Many of the practices recommended in schools’ equal opportunities policies to redress gender inequalities have done little, if anything, to change the way in which boyhood and girlhood is perceived and judged by adults as well as acted out by children in the primary classroom (Francis and Skelton, 2003, p.13). Research has demonstrated that, despite their improved achievement, many facets of girls’ educational experience remain negatively affected by the masculine values and expectations reflected in educational institutions (Francis and Skelton, 2001, p.3). Evidence that has been presented in respect of girls outstripping boys in terms of school achievement has not gone unchallenged, with Gorard et al. suggesting that data presented masks the fact that exam performance has increased for both boys and girls on a yearly basis, and the statistical information has, in any case, been misinterpreted (Gorard et al., 1999). The boys’ underachievement debate has been criticised because of the narrow parameters of the argument where it has been suggested that all boys, irrespective of social class, ethnicity and so on are underachieving (Francis and Skelton, 2001, p.165).

It is essential that schools develop policies which take a holistic view of inclusion and equal opportunities in respect of gender. These must be implemented and their success evaluated, and efforts made to re-engage boys in the education process.


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