How Boys and Girls Learn


On the 17th of July 2014, the Department of Basic Education, through the Research Coordination Monitoring and Evaluation unit, hosted a research workshop on “Differences in Learning for Boys and Girls”.

The intention of the workshop was to examine those factors that lie behind the findings of recent diagnostic assessments of learner performance. The presentations were intended to focus on the weaknesses in conceptual development which manifest in low literacy and numeracy performance. Other presentations focused on possibilities, options and tools for identifying where conceptual weaknesses manifest and developing classroom-based responses to these which are scalable.

The key questions which the workshop responded to were, is it necessary to have a gender focus on learning? How is the education sector, South Africa specifically, performing in gender equity? What are the conceptual development processes and necessary environments for effective teaching and learning for various subjects including Language and Mathematics? and is there a difference in how boys and girls learn?

Academic studies on the subject found that a high percentage of South African boys are among the weakest readers, a high percentage of boys are repeaters and more males than females are dropping out of the schooling system in South Africa.

Dr T Zuze from the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council) pointed out that some researchers believe it is due to the differences in the structure of the different gender’s brains and hormones, although this theory has been widely discredited. There is broad consensus, based on analysis, of what contributes to low performance across schooling in our schools; that learning differences are not a gender matter but are influenced by other quality and environmental factors. It is these critical issues that the system needs to grapple with.

The isolation of those factors affecting conceptual understanding and influencing how learning takes place in school and classroom practices, is key in addressing the challenges of learner performance. Identifying the areas where our diagnostic assessments indicate a lack of conceptual understanding will assist us to develop interventions for remediation in the classroom.

Dr Zuze highlighted factors contributing to the reading environment; these include issues like reading being perceived as being “too girly” for boys and the selection of reading material that may be more appealing to girls in classrooms. Dr T Zuze also argued that although the reading attainment gap narrows in higher grades, it is important to address reading attainment in general in both the schooling and home environment. Practical methods to support reading for boys include male role models seen reading and the expansion of what are defined as “good books” to include non-fiction, humour, graphic novels, comic books, and action oriented books. Schools could also expand their reading materials to include material that appeals to boys in order for libraries to be beneficial and encouraging for both boys and girls.

Various other experts and researchers contributed to the workshop by discussing other factors that influence learning and the performance of boys and girls in the schooling system. In terms of Mathematics, the argument that there are no biological or cognitive differences that warrant inequity in how boys and girls learn and perform in schools was further discussed and substantiated.

Weaknesses in the classroom practices and the learning gaps identified in the performance of learners across the system were isolated and discussed with a focus on tools to identify where these cognitive gaps happen and what remedial actions are required elaborated on. The presentations on this included “Conceptual Development in Mathematics Focusing on Implications for Better Diagnosis and Support For Numeracy Development” by Professor E Henning, from the Centre for Education Practice Research (CEPR) at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Childhood Education; “Play and Learning: Exploring The Implications for ECD and Development Support Including Unstructured Play” by  Mr A Viviers and Ms M Payne from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF);  and  “Perceptual and Cognitive Contributions to Early Learning in Mathematics” by Ms R Herholdt from JET Education Services.

A presentation on how learners perceive and understand the school environment and their opinion on their surroundings, as contributors to learning performance was made, “Learner Happiness Index Results With A Focus On Black Female Learners” ,by Ms Shirley Eadie from Pondering Panda with interesting findings indicating that learners would like an extended school day if the additional time was used for Mathematics or learning a ‘new’ African language.

The workshop engagement provided substantial input in responding to the key questions informing the workshop, pointing out that there are no biological differences in the ability of learners from different genders in terms of their learning capability but that gaps are the result of other contributing factors for both genders including ensuring that teaching and learning is responsive to the cognitive development needs of learners in the system. Although it is still necessary to have a gender focus in learning, it is important to support learning for both genders through isolating factors contributing to low performance and responding with appropriate quality inputs particularly through classroom practice in order to improve performance. In terms of gender equity, discussions highlighted the parity in terms of access for both genders, requirement for the system to set-up remedial responses for learning gaps identified to ensure that gender parity is maintained across the phases not only in access but also in performance and that gender concerns should include the consideration of boys who may be falling behind.



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