Is gender inequality in classroom less of an issue in high school than in early grades?

A pretty African American university woman reading at the parkWhether they know it or not,  teachers often fall into the trap of paying more attention  to boys than girls in school, according to many studies on gender inequality in the classroom.  

But, according to two British researchers, this unequal treatment may be a problem in primary school but it doesn’t seem to be an issue at the secondary school  level. When researchers Alex Harrop and Jeremy Swinson conducted a study of how teachers related to boys and girls at the primary school level a few years ago, they found that teachers interacted more with boys.

But when they recently replicated  the study with 20 secondary school teachers from 2 schools, they  found no statistically significant differences in teachers’ behaviors towards the students, says a report in Educational Studies. “In the secondary school, there is little difference between approval (to academic and social behaviour) directed to the two genders, whereas in the primary school boys received considerably more,” the researchers write.  “The primary school pattern of boys receiving both more approval and disapproval than the girls has not been repeated in the secondary school.”

Both studies used classroom observations to record 6 types of interactions between teachers and students:

  1. Questioning: Teacher asking a pupil a question that requires an answer, rather than a rhetorical question.
  2. Instructions and redirections: Teachers instructing pupils about what is required of them either  physically (“Please line up over there, open your books”) or mentally (“Just think carefully before you answer).
  3. Approval for academic behavior: Anjy positive teacher response relating to reading, writing, listening and answering questions.
  4. Disapproval for academic behavior: Any teacher response suggesting a rebuke such as “Be quiet” during academic activities.
  5. Approval for social behavior:  Any positive teacher response relating to classroom manners, following classroom rules and routines such as remaining seated, putting hands up in answer to a general question to the class, lining up in an orderly fashion when requested.
  6. Disapproval for social behavior: Any teacher response suggesting a rebuke for following classroom rules and routines.

Each lesson was observed for 45 minutes and was carried out by trained undergraduate students.  Each observer was individually trained to use the schedule with the lead researcher until observer agreement reached a minimum of 85%.

Researchers noted that boys received more questions than girls and more disapproval for academic and social behavior in both primary school and secondary school, but the difference in secondary school was not statistically significant. In secondary school, the girls received more instructions and redirections than boys, whereas it was the opposite in primary school.

In secondary school, boys and girls received virtually identical proportions of approval for academic behavior while in primary school, the boys received significantly more, the researchers report.  Their results may differ from the results of other studies because they observed a range of classes while some studies focused on science classes, they note. During class observations, students’ off-task and on-task behaviors were also 6 times during the lesson.

In elementary school, the girls were considerably more on-task than the boys but there was little difference in secondary school. The methodology of this study included careful definition of the behaviors observed, the use of 2 independent observers, calculations of observer agreement and evidence that observer agreement exceeded chance levels.

“Comparison of teacher talk directed to boys and girls and its relationship to their behavior in secondary and primary schools,” by Alex Harrop and Jeremy Swinson, Educational Studies,  Volume 37, Number 1,  February 2011, pps. 115-125.

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