Class more important than gender for school performance

There is no doubt that boys and girls perform differently at school. But simply looking at gender in order to understand why is not enough.
On average boys and girls perform differently at school. But research shows that social class is far more decisive than gender. (Illustration:

“In general girls perform better at school than boys, but the differences related to the pupils’ social background are far more significant in terms of learning outcome than gender”, was the conclusion in the report Er det skolens skyld (“Is the school to blame?”) in 2008, carried out by the research institute NOVA in Oslo.

Yet there has been no lack of concern and media headlines regarding boys’ poor performance at school during the past years.

Recently, NOVA launched the sequel to the report from 2008. Kjønnsforskjeller i skoleprestasjoner – En kunnskapsoppsummering (“Gender differences in school performance – A summary”) was commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and it has reached the same conclusion: Social class is more significant than gender.

Are not studying connections

Most of the 85 studies examined in the report are based on figures gathered from the international surveys TIMSS and PISA, Norwegian register data or other quantitative surveys. Not much has happened in the field since the last NOVA report appeared in 2008, concludes researcher at NOVA Elisabeth Backe-Hansen.

Explanations to why some pupils perform better than others are hard to find when only focusing on one factor at a time, she says.  

“Few of the research cases we have examined look at more than one factor at a time. Some look at ethnicity and gender or social background and gender, but mostly gender has been the only factor that has been studied.”

Given the fact that differences in school performance does not only revolve around gender, the research tend to describe gender differences which cannot be satisfactorily explained.

“The focus on gender differences tends to conceal the huge variations among boys and girls,” says Backe-Hansen.

The report notes that the focus on gender probably is a result of the fact that gender differences in schools have been a hot political issue in the recent years.

The biology trail

What is new in this year’s report is a review of previous research which attempt to explain differences between boys and girls by looking at variations in the brain and brain development.

A similar Swedish report on school research from 2010 had a separate part on this issue, Biologiska faktorer och könsskillnader i skolresultat (“ Biological factors and gender differences in school achievement”).

Martin Ingvar, Professor of neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden concludes in this report that gender differences in the brain and other biological gender differences should be taken into account in terms of how the schools may best deal with differences in school performance and pedagogical development.

According to Kristine Beate Walhovd, Professor of neuropsychology, research related to gender differences in the brain does not give grounds for the development of gender specific pedagogical methods in the schools. (Photo: University of Oslo)

“It surprises me that talking about gender differences in the brain has become so acceptable,” says Kristine B. Walhovd, who has been responsible for the chapter on neuroscience and gender differences in the NOVA report.

Walhovd is Professor of neuropsychology and is currently leading a research project at the University of Oslo which looks at cognition and brain development through life.

“Finding differences in the brain related to social class is not as popular. Some studies on this have appeared recently, but I don’t think this is something one can easily research. The category is too broad.”

Individual variations in the brain are bigger

Walhovd’s conclusion is the opposite to that of Martin Ingvar:

“According to my view, neuroscientific research  cannot be used as a reason to develop different pedagogical programs for boys and girls,” she states.  

On the average there are undoubtedly differences between girls’ and boys’ brains. These differences are present already from birth. For one thing, the size is different; boys’ brains weigh more than girls’ brains. Some studies have indicated that there are variations related to the brain’s development and maturation.

“Research has also shown relatively moderate connections between variations in the brain and differences in performance and skills,” says Walhovd.

But research also shows that there are huge variations in the brain among children regardless of gender. Moreover, there is an overlap between the groups. Some boys have smaller brains than girls and some girls have bigger brains than boys.

Walhovd points out that the studies which often find gender differences in the brain are those examining small selections of brains. This makes the results less certain – large selections are needed in order to exclude the manifestation of other factors.

“The gender differences referred to are often not as consistent or as significant as one might deduce from research dissemination,” says Walhovd.

“Today it is not possible to apply this knowledge in order to develop pedagogical programs based on gender.”

Walhovd nevertheless points out that we are constantly getting more and more knowledge concerning the development of the brain during childhood and young age.

“There are some fixed milestones. Children reach these at a different pace regardless of gender. But it may be useful for pedagogical personnel to acquire a basic knowledge on neural and cognitive development in order to understand and be able to identify normal and divergent development among children in general.

See also: Rich boys more competitive in economic experiences

Rejects feminisation theory

The new report from NOVA shows that the so-called feminisation hypothesis has become less significant in the research.

The theory saying that boys perform poorly because there are an overweight of female teachers has simply proved false.

Elisabeth Backe-Hansen is critical towards studies which only look at gender in relation to performance at school. The differences conceal huge variations within the groups, which often have more to do with social class than with gender. (Photo: NOVA)

Instead, some studies looks at the teaching methods at work, and whether new teaching methods have brought any changes. This has shown that methods where the pupils are required to take individual responsibility for learning works better for girls than for boys. Many studies find that in general girls as a group are more motivated to perform well at school than boys as a group. Hence, they are more self-motored.

“This may apply to girls and boys as groups. Within the groups, however, there are huge variations,” says Backe-Hansen.

See also: Not feminized, but modernized

Needs overall thinking, not gender focus

The fact that girls perform better than boys at school has been well known for a century,” says Backe-Hansen.

She points to an American study which has shown that gender was the primary reason why the pupils were moved upwards to higher levels according to age rather than performance in the early 1900s. If the pupils were to be moved up according to performance, the boys would be lagging behind.

Similarly, Backe-Hansen discovered a British study showing that filtering criteria for 11 year olds within the British school system in the 50s were stricter for girls. Otherwise, the boys would never be able to advance.  

Girls score higher than boys especially in terms of reading, whereas in maths the gap dwindles. Some studies suggest that boys as a group are more vulnerable and hence problems at home or bullying will affect their performance at school to a larger degree.

“Even though gender shouldn’t be a chief category, there are differences that we should be aware of,” says Backe-Hansen.

“It has to do with the fact that some does not perform well at school, and it should be dealt with. If the boys don’t like to read, one needs to find a way to make them enjoy reading.”

Few of the studies examined by NOVA have looked at measures which may reduce the differences in terms of school performance, but those that do seem to conclude that focusing on one gender at a time is not the way to go.  

“In order to do something about the boys’ performance, one has to do something with the teaching environment in general. Both boys and girls must be facilitated. The schools which have succeeded in reducing gender and social differences have focused on the overall teaching,” Backe-Hansen concludes.

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro.

The researchers

Elisabeth Backe-Hansen is a researcher at NOVA/Centre for Welfare and Labour Research at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

Kristin Beate Walhovd is Professor of neuropsychology at Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo.


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