Thursday, June 2, 2011

Girl Power

I recently read this article from an Australian newspaper. In a nutshell, it addresses the decline in NAPLAN maths testing results for girls. The article goes on to recommend studies and funding into finding a prevention for this perpetual 'drop-out' rate in maths participation as girls progress through school.

I realise that there are some benefits of criterion-based standardised testing, however those who analyse and make decisions based on the results must do it from an informed perspective. Earlier this year I read a fantastic book by Jo Boaler entitled 'The Elephant in the classroom: Helping children learn and love Maths'. The book addressed many topics including, among others, the effects of ability grouping, assessment styles and teaching practices. Boaler based her arguments on research collected from longitudinal studies conducted in the UK and USA.

One of the discussions that interested me the most was about the different ways that boys and girls learn. Research shows that when an embryo reaches the stage that the sex is decided the specific changes occur in the genetic make up have potential ever-lasting results on the way that they learn. The onset of testosterone required for the development of the X chromosome in males destroys other parts of their genetic make up that affect communication. This is why a higher percentage of babies that are born with communication-based developmental disorders (such as autism) are males. This also means that females generally have a greater propensity to learn in a more communicative environment.

The way maths is still currently taught doesn't always lend itself to this style of learning, especially in middle and upper primary. Girls can be more inclined to talk things out, work collaboratively and discuss their findings whereas boys can find it easier to work through things on their own in a systematic approach. The 'skill and drill' environment that is still present in many classrooms can have a strong negative influence on performance and inclusion rates, especially for girls. Of course these learning styles don't fit the mould of every student. I have taught many boys that thrive in an environment where they can discuss their work and, conversely, there are many girls that find the opposite approach easy to relate to.

Those in charge of policy and curriculum decisions need to be up to date and aware of current research findings and take them into account when analysing things such as standardised test results, that are very closed, individualised performances. These aren't always a clear indication of a student's understanding.

1 comment:

  1. When I was a high school teacher in the UK, I noticed that there was a definite bias of boys towards maths and science subjects, but in most international schools where I've worked I haven't noticed such a big difference in test results. This has led to me question whether or not it is nurture rather than nature that leads to boys doing better in some countries than girls in the STEM subjects. I know, for example, that on the PISA tests boys do out-perform girls worldwide in maths, but in societies that are more "equal" such as Norway or Sweden, there is little difference between the scores of boys and girls. In other countries where women are not seen to have a high social status, I wonder whether the higher scores received by boys are just self-fulfilling prophesies - boys are told they are good at maths and are probably given more praise and attention by the teachers in those societies. These subjects, in turn, are seen as being more valuable than the arts subjects and boys, who are expected to go on to be the "bread-winners" are expected to do well in them.
    The biggest difference I have noticed is not in fact in maths, but in reading. In every country in the world girls perform better than boys in standardized tests for reading. Could this be because reading is taught in primary schools where the majority of teachers are women? Could it be that this more collaborative and communicative approach favours girls, rather than boys, when learning to read?