Underachieving boys, or clever girls?

Boys and girls perform differently at school, but researchers are uncertain whether this has to do with how they mature.
The differences between boys’ and girl’s performance in primary school are small, they increase in lower secondary school and they diminish a little during first year of upper secondary school. (Illustrasjonsfoto: iStockphoto)

In Norway, gender differences in school are frequently discussed. In general, girls perform better than boys do, and the discussion concerns whether this has to do with different maturation processes or whether the Norwegian school system is better accommodated for girls.  

“The difference between girls’ and boys’ performance in subjects such as English, Norwegian, and maths increase in the girls’ favour from the fifth grade. The differences reach their peak in tenth grade before they gradually start falling during first year of upper secondary school,” says Jens B. Grøgaard, researcher at The Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) and sociologist at University College of Southeast Norway.

Together with his colleague Clara Åse Arnesen, Grøgaard has recently published the article “Gender differences and school performance: Different maturation?” in the Norwegian Journal of Youth Research. The study is based on registered data for primary and lower secondary school classes from 2010–2011.

The maturation hypothesis

As a point of departure, Grøgaard and Arnesen use a hypothesis that has not yet been subject to much discussion, the so-called maturation hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, girls’ and boys’ perform differently in school because girls’ intellectual maturation happens earlier than boys’, in accordance with puberty.

“When the children start lower secondary school there are some major physical differences between girls and boys. Girls mature earlier than boys physically, and therefore it is easy to presume that this also applies socially and cognitively,” says Grøgaard.

Jens B. Grøgaard has tested the maturation hypothesis. Photo: NIFU

The study is based on results from national tests from primary school and marks from lower and upper secondary school. The researchers have also reviewed academic literature on IQ research and gender differences.

“The material shows that the differences between girls’ and boys’ performance are small in primary school, increase in lower secondary, and then decrease again during the first year of upper secondary school. So far this supports the maturation hypothesis,” says Grøgaard.

Grøgaard emphasises that the study does not discuss social factors in much depth. It looks at the students’ gender, age, and marks from fifth grade to the first year of upper secondary school.

“We know from previous studies that there are gender differences in school performance regardless of social differences. The fact that boys lag behind when it comes to school performance is thus a durable find.”

Vocational education equalising  

In tenth grade at lower secondary school, girls perform better than boys in all the three subjects English, Norwegian, and maths. The average difference between boys and girls in Norwegian corresponds to one-half grade.

“The differences balance out during the first year of upper secondary school. The remaining question is why? Is it because the boys catch up with the girls in terms of maturation or is it because they choose different educational pathways and subjects with different methods of assessment?” Grøgaard asks.

“Boys are overrepresented in vocational education, and there the performance develops better than within general studies. The assessment regime seems to be milder in vocational training, which may have effect on the results in Norwegian, English, and maths.”

“Gender differences in IQ scores are so minor that they have no practical consequences.”

Grøgaard emphasises that the gender differences in the choice of educational pathways are so big that they may explain the balancing out of achievements between boys and girls.

“Therefore we can’t claim that the maturation hypothesis has been strengthened, but neither can we dismiss it. One way to get closer to the answer would be to follow the students after their first year of upper secondary school to see whether the boys’ positive development continues.”

Grøgaard and Arnesen have also examined studies from other countries mapping whether these is a gender difference when it comes to IQ scores.

“All the studies except for one American study show that the gender differences in IQ scores are so minor that they have no practical consequences,” says Grøgaard.

“We have therefore concluded that the basis is too weak for saying that the differences between boys and girls may be explained from their IQ developing at different speed.”

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

Social factors

One weakness that Grøgaard and Arnesen themselves emphasise in their article is that they only discuss the cognitive, and not the social, aspect of the maturation hypothesis.

“We haven’t looked at the connection between the cognitive, physical, and social maturation process.”

But social factors also come into play in relation to school performance. 

“For instance, who you go to school with matters a lot,” says Grøgaard.

“Attending a school with a high level of achievement seems to have positive effects. Good students make each other better, but this has little significance for gender differences in school performances.”

Here Grøgaard refers to researcher Tormod Øia at NOVA (Norwegian Social Research), who has found that girls work harder than boys in lower secondary school, but differences in effort can only partly explain the gender difference in school performance.

Grøgaard has no clear answers to what may be done in order to diminish the gender differences in school performance. 

“It is important to remember that the problem is not that girls perform well at school, the problem is that boys are underachievers.”

“It is important to remember that the problem is not that girls perform well at school, the problem is that boys are underachievers,” he emphasises.

“Factors such as parents’ level of education, economy, and whether the parents live together also affect both boys’ and girls’ level of performance. The teacher, on the other hand, whether male or female, does not seem to have any effect of the students’ level of performance.”

One may nevertheless allow oneself some speculations regarding why there are such major gender differences when it comes to boys’ and girls’ school performances during this phase of their education.

“Research at NOVA carried out by Anders Bakken and at NIFU, demonstrates that factors related to milieu may provide some explanations. Punctuality – that both teachers and students show up in time, the development of a supportive and inclusive learning environment, and students’ positive relations to their teachers, seem to affect the students’ performance. At the same time, these factors also contribute to balancing out the differences between boys’ and girls’ level of performance,” he says.

Measures directed at boys

According to Thomas Nordahl, Professor of pedagogics at Hedmark University College and leader of Centre for Studies of Educational Practice (SePU), the maturation hypothesis does have some value. But the tendency to “hide” behind such explanations makes us fail to take the boys’ challenges seriously, he argues.

According to Thomas Nordahl, the Norwegian school system needs to implement measures directed at boys. Photo: Høgskolen i Innlandet

“For instance, we see that boys born late in the year are more exposed, which supports the hypothesis that boys mature slower. But the maturation hypothesis alone can’t explain the gender differences in school performance,” he says.

According to Nordahl, the boys are not as motivated as the girls.

“They need more structure and they are perhaps more dependent on good relations to the teachers. And they need to be met with high expectations,” he says.

“You need knowledge in order to acquire new knowledge. Knowledge gaps may therefore have major consequences, for instance for boys who start lagging behind at school. Many of them will continue to lag behind all their life.”

According to Nordahl, it is therefore important to implement goal-oriented measures directed at the boys from early on. But this has to be done within the Norwegian school system the way it is organised today.  

“We need pedagogical measures focussing on the fact that boys face other challenges than girls,” he says.

How teaching is organised matter

According to Jens B. Grøgaard, it is vital that the political debate concerns the central question, namely how to improve the school situation for boys without making the girls suffer.

Even though the gender differences in school performance are smaller in Denmark than in Norway, Grøgaard does not think that letting children start school at a later age, as they do in Denmark, will improve the situation.

“Girls have performed better in school for a long time, also before the introduction of school for six-year-olds. Moreover, the biggest gender differences are developed in lower secondary school, not in primary school,” he says.

“Girls have performed better in school for a long time, also before the introduction of school for six-year-olds.”

“On the other hand, we may perhaps reduce the gender differences by waiting a few years with the performance pressure. Maybe teenage boys don’t handle the performance pressure as well as the girls? Alternatively, but less politically correct, carefully introducing assessment in primary school when the gender differences are smaller may have positive effects.   

Another factor which may seem to reduce the gender differences in school performance is, according to Grøgaard, to organise the teaching differently.

“Teacher-directed learning may be advantageous compared to more recent models based on student-activity methods. In teacher-directed learning, the teacher instructs the whole class collectively, gives them the same assignments to solve individually under the teacher’s guidance and then the class collectively discuss the assignments under the teacher’s supervision,” says Grøgaard.

Boys previously caught up with the girls

The fact that boys lag behind in school is nothing new, according to Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, Professor at Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo.

“Girls have always been intellectually stronger in primary school, but earlier, in the 1960s, the boys caught up with them in lower secondary school. The fact that they don’t do that now is a new thing. The girls leave tenth grade with better marks, and this gives them an advantage later when they choose their further educational pathway,” she says.

Bjerrum Nielsen is inclined to believe that girls mature earlier than boys, linguistically and socially for instance. But we’re talking average differences, not every girl and every boy.

“Today school is based on process oriented learning. Girls are better at receiving and giving messages, and they therefore often take the lead in group-based teaching. Consequently, the girls distribute the various tasks among the group members, and the boys lag behind and do what the girls tell them to do.”

See also: Gender equality creates new school boys

Later school start is better

According to her, all children, both boys and girls, would benefit from waiting a year before they start school.

According to Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, all children should start school later. Photo: UiO

“By starting school later, the boys would be more mature and the girls’ head start wouldn’t be as big.”

Last autumn she followed a new first class where she saw how much correction and discipline of small children it takes the teachers to be able to handle up to twenty-eight small children in a knowledge-oriented school.

“Much of the commotion in the classes with the smallest children is related to boys becoming unruly when they are put together. This does not apply to girls to the same extent,” she says.

Bjerrum Nielsen also believes that the girls are more motivated.

“I have done research on three generations of women and men from various social classes. It became clear that the men in all three generations were more sceptical to school than the women, which supports the assumption that girls are more motivated for school work.”

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro

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