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2003-02-02Underachievement as pertained to by gender

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This was written for a PGCE assessment piece, but turned out quite conversational. :smokin:

Three or four hundred words on this subject is a drop in the ocean; it has become a favourite topic in parent groups, news columns and pubs since it encompasses so many statistics and variables.

In Wales, the gap between genders appears, on the surface of things, to have grown at some stage - in 1998, there was a gap of 9% between those obtaining 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, rising to 10% in 1999 and 11% in 2000. But how useful are these paper figures? How useful are the assessment procedures?

Recent work by Cardiff University researchers points to the fact that figures for English skew the statistics (the discrepancy in Science and Mathematics being far less), and that argue that current disparities are in fact little different to those twenty-five years ago. As a teacher of English, this is still concerning to me; as Alan Smithers of Liverpool University states, "it is the language of thought as well as communication."

A controversial issue is to what extent one segment of a pupil demographic may be assisted without negatively impacting upon another. However, it seems to me that enabling access to a wider variety of teaching styles and methods of assessment has the potential to benefit all. For as individuals, our performance in formative or summative situations and our responses and motivations are simply that; individual. Within statistics according to gender, we must not lose sight of the range of personalities there. With this in mind, I would like to see coursework weighting being optional, with each pupil being entered for assessment tailored to them, rather than on a gender or class basis. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely pressures of time or staff numbers will ever permit this.

Responding to individual classes and members of classes is still possible, however. A competitive atmosphere may stimulate one group, for instance, whereas another (possibly struggling) group would rather not compete than compete and lose. For every school where teaching genders separately has been a 'success', there is one where it has made no difference or widened the 'gap'.

I place the words in the previous paragraph within inverted commas because the assessment is only as good as what is being tested, be it the methodology of that process or the content: GCSE History, for instance, had a heavy emphasis on 'empathy' work whilst I was part of the secondary system. Generally, it seems males prefer the study of history in terms of facts and chronologies; if this is the case, I am not a typical male, nor are those I studied American history with at university: to diverge a moment, the differences in assessment at university, college and school levels may be connected with their populations and grades -later education can tend to be more concerned with facts and contextualisation than personal response or growth, with terminology as much as usage ... therefore, if we assessed English more in terms of its mechanics, structure and history, I consider it highly probable that there would be a rapid reduction in the gender gap evidenced in its assessment. Teaching from an angle that "we make that usage of language in order to achieve this affect" may be the relevance some need to consider it worthwhile. Although, for this to be much successful, there would probably need to be job markets with fewer dead-ends, and more parents in the position to be career role-models (gender seems to fall fifth as a statistical determinant of a child's performance, much below prior achievement and social background. One Scottish statistic: "71% of pupils whose fathers are in a profession attained five or more Credit awards at Standard Grade, compared with 28% of peers whose fathers were in unskilled manual jobs. The gap between girls and boys in terms of Credit passes is only 11%." As I write this, I realise I have only the vaguest idea why my dad went into teaching; something I should ask him sometime…)

Some more statistics to bulk this out, even though I went over the suggested word count quite some time ago: TES-quoted statistics a while back suggested that an average 16-year-old boy's concentration span was 6 minutes, 16 minutes for girls (that's "16-year-old girls have a 16 minute attention span", not that 16-year-old boys have a 16 minute attention span for girls… I suspect the attention span involved for that is somewhat greater… which neatly ties into another point I'd like to make: our preconceptions as teachers and members of society greatly influence our reaction to and treatment of others. Someone with low expectations - in their own judgement or that of others - is unlikely to expend much energy.)

Other research generalises that girls tend to be auditory learners, with boys being more visual/movement-oriented: "Patrick McDaid, English advisor for Glasgow said: 'Evidence indicates that 70% of experiences in schools are auditory experiences.' Research has found that listening led to a 5% retention rate, reading 10%, audio-visual approaches 10%, demonstrations 30%, discussion groups 50%, practise by doing 75% and explaining to other 90%." (All of which leads me to wonder what the material for them to be 'retaining' was, amongst other things…)


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