Journey to Excellence

Research summary - gender in education

Differences between boys and girls

There is a growing recognition that there are psychological differences between the genders that affect the way that males and females think, communicate and behave. These differences manifest themselves in the playground, at school, at home and at work.

Boys tend to play different kinds of games from girls and they relate to each other differently. Boys are more hierarchical, whilst girls are more collaborative. Girls tend to be better at articulating their feelings, but boys tend to answer in class more frequently.


Image of boy and girl working beside each other

Differences in attainment

According to national statistics, 20 years ago there was no great difference between the attainment of boys and girls in examinations. In recent years, however, evidence shows that while both boys and girls have improved their performance, girls are achieving higher grades than boys. They outperform boys in examinations at all levels and in virtually all subjects - even those traditionally considered to be male preserves such as physical education, maths and physics.


Differences at school

The realisation that boys and girls think and learn differently has come from a range of sources, including research on the brain. Research into gender differences allows us to contrast some of the typical classroom characteristics displayed by boys and girls. 

  • Girls tend to be able to plan and organise their work more effectively than boys. They are also more able to apply their skills to different learning contexts. 

  • Boys interrupt more frequently and answer more often, even when they do not know the answer. Girls talk less in class and in groups but they are more likely to ask for help. 

  • Boys tend to over-estimate their academic abilities. Girls generally underestimate their abilities and work harder to compensate.

  • Boys tend to act first and think later. Girls like to think before they act and they are slower at becoming involved in practical activities than boys. 

  • Girls are prepared to be more open about their aspirations than boys.


Cultural differences

We know that gender differences are to some extent culturally determined. There is significant research which shows that parents tend to behave differently in relation to boys and girls. By the time children are of school age, imitation becomes very important, peer and media influences are stronger and they have become socialised into gender roles that affect their mindsets, behaviours and interests. 

Recent research, however, has shown that some of these basic gender differences are present so early on in life that cultural differences cannot be the only cause. A recent study by Baron-Cohen into the reaction of newly born babies to stimuli such as the human face and mechanical mobiles, suggests that differences in the brain may be more hard-wired that previously thought, and not attributable simply to differences in parenting. A growing body of evidence suggests that we have underestimated the importance of nature in gender differences.


Brain differences

Recent brain research suggests that there are two principal physical differences between male and female brains and also in the way men and women use their brains.

First, the corpus callosum, which links the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is relatively larger in women than in men. Second, the left side of the cortex grows more slowly in boys than in girls. This may explain why boys tend to develop formal language and communication skills later than girls and find it less easy to work collaboratively. 

This may explain why females seem to be more able to talk about their emotions than males. The emotionally sensitive right brain is able to pass more information to the analytical linguistically talented left brain and to allow the emotions to be incorporated more easily into the speech and thought processes. 

Imaging studies show that men and women tend to use their brains differently. When performing complex tasks, females have a tendency to bring both sides of their brain to bear on the problem, whereas males use only the side most obviously suited for the task.

Whilst many are sceptical about such claims, neurologists are broadly in agreement that brain development may explain key differences in early development of boys and girls and, therefore, it can be counterproductive to push formal learning too early with boys. In all of us the right brain tends to develop faster than the left brain, but there is some evidence to suggest that in boys, the left brain tends to develop more slowly than in girls.


Why are gender issues important?

A growing body of research indicates that there are key differences between boys and girls that can affect both learning and attainment.

Girls tend to develop communication skills more quickly than boys. They talk earlier and more fluently. By the age of 3 99% of girls can talk, whereas it takes almost an additional year for males to reach this level. By the age of 7, 20% of girls have difficulties in reading, compared with 33% of boys. 

Girls also write at an earlier stage than boys. Early years research shows that whilst boys are more active in their learning, they are slower to develop impulse control and lack the fine motor control necessary for writing, when compared with girls. 

In an education system that focuses heavily on literacy, boys can be disadvantaged at an early age. The subsequent impact on the confidence and self-esteem of boys can have an adverse effect on their motivation to learn.

Within mainstream education, there are twice as many boys with learning difficulties as girls. Four times as many boys are autistic and the incidence of Asperger syndrome is almost entirely male. In special units, boys outnumber girls by six to one, and there are five times as many boys as girls excluded from schools. 

The implications for schools and teachers

If boys and girls do learn and develop differently and have different needs, then there is a strong case for treating them differently in schools, whilst avoiding the dangers of stereotyping. The following sections summarise research into gender differences in education and illustrate some of the approaches used by Scottish schools to address, the under-achievement of boys.


Image of boys working in classroom

Helping boys with language and expression

Language and expression are common areas of weakness for boys. They need extra help to master written language, to express themselves verbally and to learn to enjoy reading. Some schools have developed strategies to increase reading levels for boys in both early primary and early secondary. This might involve, for example, the use of more boy-friendly books, or father and son paired reading schemes.


Recognise and celebrate achievements

Whilst all children enjoy and need praise and recognition, boys tend to like recognition for what they have achieved, whereas girls tend to set more store on appreciation for who they are as a person. An increasing number of schools praise boys in a more covert way.


Single gender classes

Whilst worldwide research on single gender classes indicates some success in increasing levels of attainment in both boys and girls, there are some wider advantages and disadvantages that should be considered.


  • There is less disruption to the learning of girls and quieter boys.

  • The content of the curriculum can be adjusted to suit boys and girls interests, for example, in reading materials.

  • Boys can relax and express themselves more effectively when girls are not present and they take more risks in their learning.

  • The absence of boys can empower girls and make them more assertive.


  • There is a danger of introducing or reinforcing male/female stereotypes.

  • Male teachers can sometimes reinforce a macho or ‘laddish’ culture and the learning climate can often be characterised by confrontation.

  • Not all boys or girls behave or think like ‘typical’ boys or ‘typical’ girls.

  • Same sex classes can result in the relatively higher attainment of girls, thus widening the gap in attainment between girls and boys.


Countering peer pressure

Peer pressure also plays an important role in the relatively poorer performance of boys because, across male peer groups, academic success is typically regarded as ‘uncool’. Research suggests that countering peer pressure by encouraging boys to examine their own attitudes and take control of their own lives can be very effective. Getting boys to talk in public about their attitudes, perceptions and behaviour is an important strategy in countering the danger of negative peer pressure.


Male teachers as role models

Schools require male teachers to act as good role models, showing that they value and are enthusiastic about learning, and that they are willing to show a range of emotions. Some male teachers assume that shouting and the use of sarcasm are effective ways of dealing with boys. They tend to punish boys, isolate and distance them rather than involving them in discussion, as is more the case in their dealings with girls.


Being assertive

Boys commonly regard teachers as not being sufficiently strict or assertive. They perceive teachers as being inconsistent thus allowing them more leeway to misbehave than girls. Boys like to know where they stand; they like teachers who are strict but fair.


Challenging boys!

Boys also say that many teachers do not put them under enough pressure. Providing that boys feel secure, they respond positively to challenges. A primary teacher recently reported that using phrases such as, ‘Can you handle this?’ and ‘Are you up for this?’ with boys, resulted in increased motivation. Group and team challenges are particularly motivating for boys. 

Clear targets and expectations

Boys, in particular, respond well to SMART targets (small, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited), especially those targets over which they have some ownership. It is important for all children to have clear targets and expectation, but this is especially true for boys. By making learning intentions clear and explicit, children tend to be more focused on task and to persevere for longer. Generally, the quality of the work also improves. 


Active Learning

Boys enjoy and respond well to learning situations that involve active involvement or physical activity. In order to improve the engagement of boys, teacher talk and explanations should be kept to a minimum. They should be actively engaged throughout lessons. Boys do not cope well with extended periods of sitting still and listening, and enabling boys to be physically active in their learning leads to higher levels of motivation and engagement. 

Image of boys doing some work in classroom

Developing thinking in boys

Boys tend to act first and think later, unlike girls who spend more time thinking beforehand about tasks and activities. Many schools are developing thinking skills in young people and this can be particularly helpful for boys.  Using templates or concept mapping techniques, for example, to help develop critical or creative thinking skills can lead to more effective learning. 

Self-confidence, perseverance and being willing to take risks and respond to new challenges are important factors in developing thinking skills in all learners. An increasing number of schools make use of techniques that help to extend pupil thinking through discussion and working with others. These include: 

  • Cooperative Learning

  • Peer Teaching and Mentoring

  • Brainstorming

  • Buzz Groups

  • Think-Pair-Share

  • Rainbow groups

  • Twos to Fours

  • Listening Triads

  • Critique Sessions. 

These techniques are explored in more detail in the Learning Together section of Teaching for Effective Learning.


Friendship groups and mixed gender pairs

Many teachers use friendship groups as a basis for grouping children in the classroom. Research shows, however, that the overuse of friendship groups can disadvantage both boys and girls since it can lead to the creation of cliques and the isolation of some children. Negative peer pressure can also be particularly strong in male friendship groups where it is ‘uncool’ to succeed.

Many teachers, particularly in secondary schools, now prefer to use pairings of boys and girls as their primary means of classroom organisation. Research shows that when boys and girls are placed in mixed gender pairs, the use of language can be up to 35 times higher than in boy-boy pairings and the quality of language also improves. When boys are paired together, one boy frequently dominates.  Such domination is far less common in mixed gender pairs. 

Working in mixed gender pairs that are changed regularly, can help learners to develop interpersonal skills, confidence, communication and assertiveness skills. It can also increase the level of motivation and improve the quality of learning experiences for both boys and girls.


Further reading

Books to help you reflect 

'Gender and Classroom Interaction' (Christine Howe, SCRE, 1997)

'Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps' (Allan and Barbara Pease, Pease Training International, Australia, 1998)

'You Just Don’t Understand' (Deborah Tannin, Virago Press, London, 1992)

'Raising Cain' (Kindling and Thompson, Michael Joseph, London, 1999)


Books with practical ideas

'Boys Will Be Men' (Paul Kevel, New Society Publishers, 1999)

'Getting it Right for Boys and Girls' (Colin Noble & Wendy Bradford, Rutledge, 2000)

'Raising Boys' (Steve Biddulph, Thorsons, 1998)

'Raising Boys’ Achievement' (Jon Pickering, Network Press, 1997)

'Women Teaching Boys' (Martin Ashley and John Lee, Trentham Books, 2003)

'Problem Girls' (Gwynedd Lloyd, Routledge Farmer, 2005)


Useful websites


Further research

Explore Learning and Teaching Scotland's Research Round-Up.

In association with Education Scotland