All boys are not poor school achievers, and all girls are not smart pupils

According to a new doctoral thesis, the answer to why pupils perform differently in school is not found by looking at girls and boys as separate groups.
According to Elin Borg, we need to start focusing on the students who are struggling at school, regardless of their gender. (Illustration:

“I started out trying to explain the gender differences in school performance. But there is no simple explanation to this,” says Elin Borg.

“The differences within each group are so big that the search for one explanation becomes hopeless. Things may have different significance for boys and girls or for different boys and girls.”

Borg recently defended her PhD thesis on gender differences in Oslo schools.

She discovered that girls with positive attitudes towards gender equality perform better at school than girls without such attitudes.

Borg has looked at the Good Girl hypothesis, which says that girls perform better at school because they work harder. According to her, this explains why Norwegian-Pakistani girls perform better than Norwegian-Pakistani boys, but it doesn’t explain why the majority of girls in general perform better at school than the majority of boys.

She also finds that school behaviour is a more decisive factor for school grades than gender. Hard-working pupils achieve good grades while boisterous pupils have poor performance and bad grades. And the distribution among the two genders is much the same – 40 per cent of the so-called boisterous pupils are girls.

Much more than gender

“Gender is both significant and insignificant”, says Borg.

“Due to the average differences, boys and girls have different opportunities later in life in terms of being accepted to prestigious schools and educations. This is important to bear in mind.”

She is nevertheless critical towards the emphasis on average differences in attempts to explain differences in school performance and when measures are taken in order to reduce gender differences.

“We need to get past this dual thinking that this is only about boys versus girls,” says Borg.

“Qualitative research have shown for a long time that the differences are much more complex. But the selections are often small, and this makes it difficult to generalise and draw conclusions regarding scope.”  

Borg has attempted to use the information from qualitative studies from the classroom, and tested it against the extensive quantitative survey Ung i Oslo 2006 (“Young in Oslo 2006”) and the longitudinal LUNO study, which followed Oslo youth over time up until 2010. Nearly all the secondary schools in Oslo participated.

“I am trying to look beyond the gender differences to see what else is going on here. I want to know more about which boys and which girls who perform well or poorly.”

See also: Class more important than gender for school performance

Mostly hard-working pupils

In one of her studies, Borg was inspired by the theory on pupil types from qualitative research, and she has made statistics on this based on responses from the LUNO survey. There appears to be four characteristic pupil types in the classroom: The Hard-Working, The Boisterous, The Quiet, and The Neutral / Normal.

The pupils responded to which of the following characteristics they thought described their classroom behaviour: bullying, accurate, talkative, clever, active, shy, anxious, boisterous and quiet.

The pupil types from the qualitative studies corresponded surprisingly well with the types Borg found in the survey.

“What the qualitative studies don’t show is how many of the pupils fall into the various groups,” says Borg.

“From my quantitative study, it is possible to see how many of the pupils described themselves as boisterous or hard-working, and how that affected their grades.”

The largest group – nearly 60 per cent of the selection – were The Hard-Working. The second largest group, consisting of nearly 30 per cent of the pupils, were The Neutral / Normal. The Boisterous group and The Quiet group were small, both consisting of just over 6 per cent.

Boisterous girls

Both LUNO and Ung i Oslo 2006, which formed the basis of Borg’s research, are based on self-reports.

“Some probably over-report being hard-working and clever, rather than boisterous and disturbing. The Hard-Working group might actually be a bit smaller, and The Boisterous group a bit bigger. But the figures nevertheless show that the majority of the pupils are hard-working, and that the boisterous are a minority,” says Borg.

The gender distribution is fairly equal within the various groups, with a slight majority of girls among the quiet and hard-working and a slight majority of boys among the boisterous and the normal.

“It is worth noting that 40 per cent of the boisterous pupils were girls,” says Borg.

“We hardly ever hear about them. Because of the debate concerning poor school performance among boys, girls, boys and teachers seem to think that boys are the only ones who struggle at school. They are perceived as noisy clowns who don’t fit in, whereas all the girls are clever.”

When looking at all the pupils in the four groups together, Borg finds that there are gender differences related to grades. 

“When only looking at the groups of hard-working and boisterous pupils, however, school behaviour explains the differences much better than gender. The boisterous pupils are the ones with bad grades.”

According to Elin Borg, the average differences in boys’ and girls’ school performance have received too much attention. The differences can’t be explained from statistics alone, as the reasons behind the gender differences are much more complex. (Photo: Ida Irene Bergstrøm)

Egalitarian attitudes pay off

In another study, Borg is measuring attitudes towards gender equality. People with so-called egalitarian attitudes think that there are few, if any, differences related to what men and women can do in society. Those with traditional attitudes, on the other hand, have gender stereotypical understandings of the differences between men and women.

The pupils in the LUNO study have responded to questions related to whether they regard activities such as baby-sitting, helping out in the kitchen, and carpentry as better suited for either girls or boys or both.

A majority of the pupils showed egalitarian attitudes.

“Like in similar studies that I am aware of from other countries, boys showed slightly more gender traditional attitudes than girls,” says Borg.

Moreover, pupils from families with lower socio-economic status showed more gender traditional attitudes.

Statistics show that girls with egalitarian attitudes performed better at school. They were also more likely to have  ambitions for entering a male dominated profession. The girls with more traditional attitudes envisioned less education and more stereotypical career choices.

In terms of class, Borg found the same effect – girls with egalitarian attitudes perform better at school regardless of socio-economic background.

See also: Norwegian schools reproduce racism and gender stereotypes

No effect on the boys

Attitudes to gender equality showed no effect on the boys. Boys with egalitarian attitudes did not perform better at school; neither did they have better probability of wanting to enter female dominated professions.

“Girls seem to constantly expand their horizons, whereas boys continue in the same old track,” says Borg.

In part, she believes that this has to do with the fact that women have more to gain on gender equality.

“Don’t boys have anything to gain on gender equality?”

“You may say that they do. But traditionally, the most prestigious occupations, power, and influence in society are male dominated. Women enter these professions in order to gain more influence in society; it is about gender equality. At the same time, some male dominated professions are losing status as industries are gradually closing down.” 

Norwegian-Pakistani girls’ effort pays off

Borg has also looked at the theory which says that girls perform better at school because they work harder. The pupils who participated in the Ung i Oslo 2006 survey were asked about homework (how much and how often) and classroom contribution (whether they are often late, boisterous, and not paying attention in class).

In order to know whether ethnical background is a decisive factor or not, Borg looked at the gender differences among a group of 900 Norwegian-Pakistani pupils and their achievements in Norwegian. She then compared her finds with a group of 8000 ethnical Norwegian pupils.  

In terms of grades, ethnical Norwegian girls were on top of the hierarchy, followed by Norwegian-Pakistani girls. Then follows ethnical Norwegian boys, whereas Norwegian-Pakistani boys were at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Norwegian-Pakistani girls put a lot more work into school than Norwegian-Pakistani boys.  

“Within the minority group, the gender differences seem to be related to their work effort,” says Borg.

“Possible explanations are that girls are more exposed to social pressure and control from their parents than boys are. It might also be easier to explain the gender differences within this group because it is more homogenous than the group of ethnical Norwegians,” says Borg.

Hard work, low score

Although Norwegian-Pakistani girls and boys say that they put more work into school than the ethnical Norwegian pupils, they do not perform as well as the majority students. Norwegian-Pakistani boys have the poorest school performance.

“One explanation may be that being part of the majority has certain advantages, as they are more familiar with the language and the culture,” says Borg.

“It might also be that the Norwegian-Pakistani pupils interpreted the survey questions differently from the majority pupils. Or it could be that the minority boys have a bad reputation and are being treated differently.”

Read also: Gender equality creates new school boys

Polarised boys’ perfomances

The hard work hypothesis does not, however, seem to explain the gender differences within the ethnical Norwegian group. Here, the statistical relationship between work effort and results is not as transparent. This might be because the group is much bigger and more complex.

“I can’t find anything to support the theory that boys in general are more boisterous and less hard-working at school, and that this explains their bad grades,” says Borg.

The Norwegian-Pakistani boys spend a lot of time on schoolwork, but they get the worst results. The ethnical Norwegian boys reported to spend least time on schoolwork.

“It may have to do with boys’ culture. In certain boys’ cultures, hard work is not considered cool.” 

Moreover, the variations among the boys are bigger than among the girls in terms of work effort and grades.

“Girls in general achieve good grades, whereas among the boys there are a few who are exceptionally good and some are very bad,” says Borg.

Address the needs, not gender

According to Borg, we clearly need to get past the focus on gender and look at the groups of pupils who actually struggle if we want to address the differences in school performance.

“Gender is not insignificant, but we also have to look at the particular boys and girls in question.”

Translated by: Cathinka Dahl Hambro

The researcher

Elin Borg recently defended her doctoral thesis Beyond a dual understanding of gender differences in school achievement: A study of the gender gap among youth in Oslo secondary schools at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Oslo.

Elin Borg is a senior researcher at the Centre for Welfare and Labour Research at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

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