Posted by: Bill Lord | October 9, 2010

Musings on gender differences

Last week I was moderating the UKedchat discussion on gender differences. For those who don’t know about this forum it is an excellent place for people interested in education to get together to discuss a topic which is selected using an online poll.

Ian Addison wrote a great blog post about why UKedchat is so useful and relevant.

The chat last week was on the topic of What is different between the ways in which boys and girls learn? Does it matter?
There is a summary of the discussion on the UKedchat blog here

My initial thoughts for the blog were:
The discussion started off with a period of clarifying the behaviour differences of the two genders. This included discussion of maturity, (boys are silly, immature, disorganised and girls are a distraction!!)
This then moved onto trying to define to what extent the comments were nothing but generalisations and to what extent they were based upon on truth. There was a fascinating question about whether teachers go into class with these preconceptions (perhaps more at Primary.) Should teachers seek to treat the genders as a blank canvas at the start of each academic year?
UKedchat then moved onto the role of teacher gender in tackling the issue. We saw the inevitable airing of questions of whether the low numbers of male teachers in Primary schools is a formative factor in the gender problems which manifest themselves in both Primary and Secondary schools.This was countered by many examples of schools where this has not been an issue and how it is down to relationships, use of technology and good teaching.
There were up to the half way mark attempts to define what is girl or boy friendly and whether they are exclusive of the other gender. The conclusion appeared to be that the approaches were often as effective for both. The issue of split genders in set and classes rose at this point with mainly very positive experiences of this in both primary and secondary settings.
In the second half the chat moved away from some of the generalisations to more specific suggestions and strategies.
It was pointed out that after half an hour a discussion of gender had mainly been about boys’ behaviour and achievement. At this point the issue of girls’ achievement in mathematics was raised.
The recognition of different learning styles and the stimuli used was cited as important and too often unrecognised.
In the last fifteen minutes suggestions were made to investigate Kagan and also Trouble with Boys by Tyre. Forest schools got a good mention from several posters as well as other practical activities.
To sum up the hour covered:
– teacher expectations
– selecting appropriate pedagogies
– splitting groups by gender
– societal and cultural pressures on pupils to conform to gender norms
– governors seeking male teachers in primary schools
– gender discussions should include discussion of girls not just boys
– Move the FS 6 areas of learning into Primary could make a more vibrant and relevant curriculum

I decided at the end that i would seek to expand on some of my thoughts in a blog post. The issues which resonated with me were those around teacher expectation, recognising pupils as individuals rather than members of gender groups,  teacher bravery in planning and the use of technology.

To give a context I have worked in North Nottinghamshire for much of my career which is an area which has been blighted, in many places, by low expectations of pupils’ potential, a growing underclass caused by the collapse of the mining and manufacturing industries and an area where boys’ achievement is a considerable problem. In my advisory work I was lucky enough to work with Petula bhojwani (until recently of Birmingham City University) researching and developing strategies to support teachers with the teaching of boys up to 2004.

After a gap of several years we started working together again in 2006 leading a project in Nottinghamshire which was written up in a UKLA publication ‘I know what to write now!’: Engaging Boys (and Girls) through a Multimodal Approach about which I blogged last year. The funding for the project was ostensibly to allow the schools to target standards in boys’ writing but during the year we worked closely with teachers trying to develop a set of pedagogies which would raise standards for all children rather than concentrate on gap closing by targeting one gender group.

One of the chapters was about how Carr Hill Primary School strived to use boy friendly strategies to support the raising of standards across all year groups and both genders in which we discussed the approaches we took as a whole school to develop strategies which included those boy friendly ones but also a keen consideration of the needs of the girls.

So I am struck by the fact that, if we accept that what is good teaching and learning for boys is good for girls, we should be concentrating on good teaching and learning and pedagogical strategies.

Some of the main strategies we covered in this were:

Selection of texts
If you consider the average selection of texts given to a class in their primary literacy lessons it does not always make the most invigorating list. There have been many comments in OFSTED reports about teacher subject knowledge in literacy but for me there is as serious an issue with the level of knowledge of which books are available to share with children. I have used the line “children have the right to experience books by authors who are still alive or those written in the last 20 years” in conferences, training and meetings – this has been often greeted with laughter and smiles but also much crossing of arms.
There are too many classes where the selection of texts is down to what was used the year before the year before the year before. I do believe that  children have the right to be read books by authors who are still alive or still writing. I am not ‘dissing’ the quality of Roald Dahl, Dick King-Smith,  Allan Ahlberg, Anne Fine etc (indeed I was involved in a project based upon The Jolly Postman) it is about knowing texts and to do that teachers have to read books. You have to know your children and know which books would best suit them. In order to do this you need to be a reader of children’s  books.

I find it disturbing how many teachers I meet in Primary education who do not read any children’s books – for me that is the same as not reading up on the teaching of mathematics or art. My analogy is that I am not a confident teacher of art but ensure that I am aware of artists, exhibitions and art work. I also sought out the art teacher for support in teaching the progression of skills needed in the scheme of work.At the moment I am working with a lot of teaching on developing reading comprehension strategies and ‘reading books for books’ sake’. It is clear that people are keen to develop greater awareness of strategies and texts and teachers always love the time to engage with wonderful books but there is an issue which I often come across.  All too often I get comments like ‘we don’t have a good book stock’, ‘I don’t know which books to use’, ‘I can’t use picture books in KS2’, ‘I haven’t got time to read books at home’. I am afraid that much of this is phooey – it is not that hard and if schools are trying to place an emphasis on reading then this should include developing a reading staff. It is certainly worth reading the UKLA Research on Teachers as Readers

So for us the first important element was to improve teacher knowledge of children’s books and get them to vary the texts used to suit particular cohorts or cross curricular work. This is not necessarily a boy friendly strategy but one which did impact on pupil attitudes. We worked very hard to make reading  popular activity in part by making it subversive and introducing books which they were surprised that we allowed them to read such as Bumface by Morris Gleitzman and also by trying to be ahead of the trends in reading in our purchasing of books.

I also strongly believe that we should be giving the children the right to access books which cover uncomfortable

Quality First Teaching and the use of technology
In the last ten years Primary schools in England have seen a huge rise in the number of additional adults employed to teach and to assist in teaching. We see interventions taking place on a daily basis with learning mentors also supporting pupils. This is all good news and something which we could only appreciate the impact of once budget cuts truly bite in forthcoming years. There has been a lot of work in recent years on raising the level of Quality First Teaching (QFT). The description of this that I use with colleagues can be found here on the National Strategies website.  If you look at the descriptions below I don’t think that there is anything to necessarily to argue against but it does miss the absolutely crucial element – the pedagogy which drives it. For me, the definition of pedagogy is the art of teaching (others will refer to it as the science but I do like the concept of it being an art).  In the last year I saw a colleague use a video in a large training event in which a young teacher discussed how she  had spent much of the last year developing her pedagogy. The response to it was fascinating as some teachers look a little mystified, some nodded in agreement and two mimed holding a handbag and oohed in a get you fashion. It was almost as though they considered her to be getting ideas above her station using a word like that!

Quality first teaching is achieved by balancing different teaching and learning approaches.

Directing and telling

Sharing your teaching objectives and expected learning outcomes with the class, ensuring that pupils know what to do, and drawing attention to points over which they should take particular care: for example, showing how to ensure that one step follows from another in a scientific argument, the degree of accuracy to adopt when making a measurement, how to communicate findings, how to label axes correctly or plot a smooth curve.


Giving clear, well-structured demonstrations using appropriate resources and visual displays: for example, showing a particular technique or a scientific method for a practical activity, showing how to interpret a graph or develop a rigorous scientific argument, interpreting a view through a microscope using photographic slides or electronic views from a mini-camera or CD-ROM using a data projector or whiteboard.

Explaining and illustrating

Giving accurate, well-paced explanations, and referring to previous work or methods: for example, using models and analogies to assist understanding, giving the meaning of a scientific term, symbol or form of notation, and explaining how evidence leads to an acceptable conclusion.

Questioning and discussing

Questioning in ways that match the direction and pace of the lesson to ensure that all pupils take part (supported where necessary by a teaching assistant or other adult and/or by appropriate equipment); using open and closed questions, skilfully framed, adjusted and targeted to make sure that equal numbers of girls and boys, and pupils of all abilities, are involved and contribute to discussions; asking for explanations; giving time for pupils to think before inviting an answer and deciding when it is apt to have a ‘no hands up’ approach; listening carefully to pupils’ responses and responding constructively in order to take their learning forward; and challenging pupils’ assumptions and making them think.

Exploring and investigating

Asking pupils to pose problems, suggest a line of enquiry or design a fair test, to investigate for themselves or identify anomalous results; equipping pupils with the skills required to plan and carry out investigations, including opportunities to extend the range of equipment they can use successfully in their work.

Consolidating and embedding

Providing varied opportunities to practise and develop newly learned skills, through a variety of activities in class and well-focused homework; asking pupils to work either with a partner or as a group.

Reflecting on and talking through a process

Inviting pupils to expand their ideas and reasoning, or to compare and then refine their methods and ways of recording their work; encouraging them to use and apply their scientific skills to solve scientific problems across the curriculum.

Reflecting and evaluating

Identifying pupils’ errors, using them as positive teaching points by talking about them and any misconceptions that led to them; discussing pupils’ justifications of the methods or resources they have chosen; evaluating pupils’ presentations of their work to the class; giving them oral feedback on their written work.

Summarising and reminding

Reviewing, during and towards the end of a lesson, the science that has been taught and what pupils have learnt; identifying and correcting misunderstandings; inviting pupils to present their work and picking out key points and ideas; making links to other work in science and other subjects; giving pupils an insight into the next stage of their learning.

Guided learning

Guided learning is an instructional sequence for small groups which is integrated into lessons to bridge between whole-class teaching and independent work. It is more than just listening in; supporting and challenging in a sustained and proactive way at the point of learning; sustained time with specific groups; could be a systematic and ongoing rotating programme.

Taken from the National Strategies Website

At the same we have seen a massive rise in ICT hardware purchasing and use but to what end? I have spent the last 11 years arguing that technology should be a key driver in combatting the under achievement of boys but despite the massive investment there is still an issue. This points to  chronic problem in the use of the technology (not a new argument I know) – to be blunt we have invested millions of pounds in giving cutting edge technology in Primary schools to people who are not trusted with the remote control by their own children in their own homes.
It could be argued that we have made it worse  – for those of a certain age who remember the games show Bullseye in the 1980s – this is like the end of the show when contestants failed to win the star prize and they would wheel out a speedboat or car with the legend “Look what you could have won” coming from the lips of host Jim Bowen. We present the children with a dynamic, vertical, visual tool in class and then often leave it in the hands of people who don’t use it to anywhere it’s full potential.

I posted in some detail on the Storytyne blog post about attitudes of teachers towards children driving the technology. It is important that teachers hand over the use of the technology. I posed the question Have we spent millions of pounds on putting technology in classrooms and leaving it in the hands of people who are not even trusted with the remote control in their own houses?

In Independent sessions teachers should be aiming to use the IWB whether it be to continue from the shared session working with a targeted group for guided work or giving the access to the board to an independent group who then feed back in the plenary. (The use of the screen recorder comes in handy here)

Teachers who are not confident using specific applications should consider simply handing it over to the pupils whether it be screen capture, the recorder tool, Kodu, Photostory, Audacity, Google Maps, Podium, Voicethread etc – these are all applications which don’t get used sufficiently widely because of teacher confidence issues but all of which simply require an understanding of how they can support learning. The children will do the rest!


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful and reflective post on gender and learning. The key point for me, is that good teaching is good teaching whether its for boys or for girls.
    I particularly enjoyed reading your breakdown of the elements of what constitutes good learning and I will be sharing this with my younger staff next week! Thanks Bill.

  2. I’m glad you liked it! I think that there are some key discussions to be had in schools about how we engage all learners.

    The breakdown is taken from the National Strategies page so not my writing – couldn’t work out how to put it into a frame to show this!!

  3. […] Have just read this in a blog post by Bill Lord: […]

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