Do Boys and Girls Need Different Things in School?

Research interest has grown over the last decade in how schools and families can provide different kinds of support to help both girls and boys develop self-confidence and thrive academically. Studies by the American Association of University Women, for example, observed that teachers call on boys more in class, give them positions of more responsibility, and the like. And a body of psychological research indicates that girls learn and interact in a more collaborative, less hierarchical and competitive way, which traditional classrooms may not support.

Schools do poorly by boys in other ways, the data show. Boys do outnumber girls by about three to one in the top ten percent of math and science performers, a major University of Chicago study found, and in some science and vocational aptitude tests, no girls scored in the top three percent. But the Chicago study also shows that boys predominate at the bottom of the heap, especially in reading and writing, where the lowest performers outnumber girls by a margin of two to one. Harvard University psychiatrist William S. Pollack argues that most schools fail to accommodate boys’ different learning styles, and shunt them disproportionately into special needs classes. And the college population has been steadily tilting in favor of female students. Twenty years ago more boys than girls went to college; now, 58 percent of high school male graduates make it to college, compared to 67 percent of females.

Some Essential schools with an interest in meeting their students’ varying developmental needs are looking for ways to adapt their structures and teaching practices to be more appropriate for both genders. The law frowns on separate-sex classes, making it difficult, say, to have a math class aimed at raising girls’ self-confidence and skills. So how can schools support girls’ needs for quiet, collaborative settings, boys’ needs for high levels of action, and both genders’ need to express themselves with sensitivity and confidence?

Perhaps answers will come from the kind of individual and small-group activities made possible by lower student loads; perhaps from outside the academic classroom, through advisory-type activities. Philadelphia’s Academy for the Middle Years, for example, has successfully instituted separate lunch areas for boys and girls. “It started as a pragmatic response to the lunchroom’s physical layout,” says principal Holly Perry. “Then we realized many of our lunchroom problems were disappearing with the change. Boys want to eat quickly and get out to do something active; the girls tend to linger and talk with each other.”

Boys and girls aren’t the only area where such equity issues arise in the classroom. A growing research base is challenging teachers to vary their approaches to support the academic development of children with different racial and cultural backgrounds as well, an issue to be addressed in a coming issue of HORACE.