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Think you Know Why Your Girls Consistently Outperform Your Boys? Guess What, You’re Almost Certainly Wrong

David Didau reveals the one little thing that might just close the gender attainment gap in schools

  • Think you Know Why Your Girls Consistently Outperform Your Boys? Guess What, You’re Almost Certainly Wrong

As everyone involved in Project Education knows, girls, on average, do better than boys at school. This troubling statistic is replicated time and again in data sets from around the world.

Inevitably, this has led to lots of people scrabbling to work out how to close the gap between girls’ and boys’ performance and, just as inevitably, this has resulted in a lot of rather silly ideas.

The trouble is, we think we understand the causes of this difference in performance, and we don’t. We only ever get to see effects, never the cause of those effects, but the idea that we can perceive causality is a remarkably persistent illusion.

If we see a child misbehave in class we automatically start thinking about why they did what they did. If we notice a teacher make a particular choice we assume we know why they selected that course of action.

Sometimes we might turn out to be right, but that doesn’t mean we ever get to see the causes.

The numbers game

A recent study of Welsh data revealed exactly what you’d expect: Welsh girls were significantly outperforming Welsh boys.

But, when a factor analysis was performed on this dataset, the researchers found that the gap between girls and boys was not nearly as significant as that between right-handed and left-handed students.

Maybe we should conclude from this that schools would be better off with a left-handed students policy rather than a boys’ policy?

Before you get too excited about this possibility, though, a further factor analysis revealed that even this gap wasn’t as significant as that between students who lived in even-numbered houses and those who lived in odd-numbered houses.

Clearly, the way to close the gap in education is to move students out of those odd-numbered hellholes into nice, leafy, middle class even-numbered houses.

But of course, this is absurd. No one believes even for a moment that there can be a link between children’s educational attainment and the number of the house they live in. We just can’t see a cause.

Gender, on the other hand; that’s plausible. When we hear that girls do better than boys, we think we understand why.

Our lived experience is that boys and girls are different, so why shouldn’t these observed differences result in different academic performance?

Girls are quiet, hardworking and conscientious, whereas boys are… well, gits. No wonder girls do best.

Genuine bias

A few years ago, Ofqual, the exams watchdog, was concerned that it had detected gender bias in examiners’ marking.

Quite rightly, Ofqual took this very seriously – it’s a big deal, and would mean that girls were being routinely over-rewarded just for being girls.

However, when a sample of scripts were typed up and remarked, the gender bias disappeared. After much thought, it was decided that the differences in the initial results were most likely caused by handwriting bias.

I never seen any data on this, but anecdotal evidence leads me to conclude that girls, on average, tend to have much nicer handwriting than boys. I think it’s unlikely that this is a function of biology and highly probable that it’s a result of cultural differences.

Girls are more likely to value neat handwriting and, if you’re a girl with scrappy handwriting, other girls are likely to look down their noses at you.

There are social pressures acting on girls that encourage them to write more neatly.

But if you’re a boy with terrible handwriting, no one cares. Neatness has become interwoven with ideas about femininity and so perhaps we’re actively encouraging boys to be scruffier?

Whatever the case may be, handwriting bias is real. When an examiner begins to read an exam script they are unconsciously influenced by the quality of the handwriting, and a few marks can be enough to tip a candidate over a grade boundary.

So, if we’re serious about improving boys’ academic showing, maybe we should be intervening on something as seemingly insignificant as handwriting?

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk.

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