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OECD: Boys trailing girls in school

Boys face the risk of falling behind girls in school, is the warning coming from a new report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD. The phenomenon has been observed across the globe, from Asia to the Americas and Europe – including Finland.

Alakoululainen kirjoittaa pulpetissaan vihkoon.
Image: Sini Salmirinne / Yle

The results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that 60 percent of the weakest students in the standardised worldwide tests were boys. In Finland, boys accounted for 70 percent of the poorest performers in the tests.

In Finland the differences in test results were most pronounced in terms of literacy; in mathematics and natural sciences, the outcomes were less skewed in favour of girls. The same applied to countries such as Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

However in other countries – such as those in Latin America - where there was less of a difference between boys and girls in terms of literacy, there tended to be a much larger performance gap in mathematics and natural sciences.

Teaching methods favour girls

According to the report, teaching styles are partly responsible for the gender-based differences in the test results.

“Lecture-based teaching favours those who are able to sit still and be quiet. We can assume that this is easier for girls, who are often thought to be more conscientious and better behaved than boys. On the other hand, education has evolved to use many different teaching methods,” said Anssi Pirttijärvi, chief inspector of the Education and Culture Ministry.

Researchers are in fact considering developing different pedagogical approaches to strengthen boys’ motivation and belief in the importance of education. Specialists are looking to leverage boys’ keen interest in technology to develop new ways to teach mathematics, for example.

Recognition of different learning styles

Pirttijärvi said that it is good that the focus is on the differences between girls and boys in terms of learning results. However he declared that these differences should be addressed by challenging gender stereotypes, rather than strengthening them.

“Students should be allowed to be who they are. We need to appreciate gender differences in learning outcomes, but we shouldn’t think that boys are a certain way and that a certain teaching approach would suit them. There are different ways to be a boy and different ways to be a girl, and they should all be recognised,” the education official advised.

Pirttijärvi pointed out that the principles of Finland’s new primary education curriculum are based on a gender-aware perspective that challenges traditional stereotypes.

Boys still more confident than girls

In spite of their weak performances in the latest PISA evaluation, boys display more confidence than girls, especially in mathematics and natural sciences. Boys are also more likely than girls to consider a career in science, technology or mathematics, although both groups perform equally well in PISA’a natural sciences tests, the report found.

“This is influenced by prevailing attitudes, the division of labour in families, all of the messages that we send to girls about working life and the role of women. The educational sector does indeed play a role in career and salary development. Although girls fared better in school than boys, it doesn’t help that girls are later placed in fields that offer lower pay,” said Eeva Korolainen, a gender equality specialist with the private sector business lobby EK.

Good grades don't guarantee career success

The OECD report found that teachers gave girls better grades than boys in math tests although both groups performed equally well in the PISA evaluations. They speculated that teachers may choose to reward girls with better grades for obediently following instructions. However this could do more harm than good, since in working life good grades don't determine who wins and who loses.

“To advance in your career you need a different set of skills than the ones you need to succeed in school. Perhaps women are more modest than men and this shows in the wage gap between men and women,” Pirttijärvi noted.

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