Why boys are falling behind at school
The latest NAPLAN results demonstrating girls outperform boys in writing and reading illustrate the problem of boys underachieving. Boys’ underperformance is especially evident with year 9 writing, where only 81.6 per cent of boys reach the minimal level, compared with 90.8 per cent of girls.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the body responsible for NAPLAN, describes the minimum standard as demonstrating “only the basic elements of literacy and numeracy at their year level”. If boys’ mastery of reading and writing is basic, many will find the standard expected at years 11 and 12 impossible to achieve.
Boys, particularly at year 9 level, lag behind girls in reading and writing.Credit:Shutterstock
Girls also outperform boys in reading across years 3, 5, 7 and 9, with the greatest disparity in year 9, where 93.3 per cent of girls reach the minimum standard compared with 87.3 per cent of boys.
While boys do marginally better than girls in numeracy, when it comes to spelling, grammar and punctuation, the situation is reversed. Once again, girls achieve stronger results. The problem of underachievement is also evident at the senior years.
This masthead’s Jordan Baker highlights the issue in her recent report “Boys falling far behind girls in HSC and at university”, where she quotes the University Admissions Centre concluding that being male was “greater than any other recognised disadvantages we looked at”.
Last year’s Victorian year 12 results also illustrate gender imbalance, where the average Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) for girls was 70.6 compared with 67.62 for boys. In sought-after tertiary courses, the difference of a couple of points is critical.
Boys perform marginally better in numeracy than girls.Credit:Shutterstock
As noted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, based on 2020 figures, while 88 per cent of girls stayed on to year 12, the figure for boys was only 79 per cent. And 92 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 had completed year 12 or certificate III or above, compared with 87 per cent of men.
While recent NAPLAN and ATAR results illustrate boys’ underperformance, the issue of gender imbalance is not a new one. In 2002, the then-minister for education, Brendan Nelson, commissioned an inquiry to investigate boys’ underachievement.
Submissions to the inquiry noted that boys, compared to girls, needed a more highly structured, disciplined classroom environment where teachers are authority figures, learning is explicit and students receive prompt assessment and feedback.
The inquiry’s report, Boys: getting it right, concludes: “Boys tend to respond better to structured activity, clearly defined objectives and instructions, short-term challenging tasks and visual, logical and analytical approaches to learning.”
A shortage of male teachers to mentor and guide can adversely affect the performance of boys at school. Credit:iStock
As noted by research undertaken by the OECD, Australian classrooms have long since adopted a more open-ended, inquiry-based and process approach to learning and classroom interaction, where teachers are facilitators and assessment is less judgemental.
The way reading is taught in the early years – where whole language has dominated, instead of the more structured and explicit phonics and phonemic awareness approach – best illustrates how current approaches to pedagogy better suit girls compared with boys.
Learning to read is not as natural and easy as learning to talk, and while girls often find the whole language, look-and-guess approach worthwhile, boys struggle and easily become anxious and frustrated.
In his book Boys and Girls Learn Differently, the American social philosopher and academic Michael Gurian makes the point – based on cognitive research and our understanding of brain development – that boys learn differently from girls, and this difference impacts what happens in the classroom.
Gurian suggests girls develop verbal and linguistic skills earlier than boys, are better able to articulate feelings and emotions earlier than boys, and that boys favour deductive thinking compared with inductive.
It is widely accepted that teachers act as mentors and are critical in influencing whether students are engaged and motivated. The fact that men constitute 22 per cent of the teacher workforce, with the figure falling to 16 per cent of primary school teachers, also helps explain boys’ underachievement.
As noted by Sydney academic and education expert Peter West, the dearth of male teachers impacts how boys view education and their willingness to engage and do well. There’s an affinity between boys and male teachers, especially at the primary school level, that helps boys in their emotional and intellectual development.
There needs to be greater emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness, and more structured and explicit teaching and assessment styles. Attracting and retaining more male teachers to act as mentors and role models is also a must.
To argue that more needs to be done to help boys, especially in the critical areas of reading and writing, is not to ignore the fact that both boys and girls deserve an enriching and rewarding education. But the solution is to work towards a more balanced approach in the classroom.
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