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14 October 2022
By Jason Horne, Specialist Improvement Adviser (Maths)

Ideas on How to Support a Gender Difference in Maths

Estimated Reading Time - 7 mins

My colleague Sarah Carpenter and I have had numerous discussions with schools regarding the results from the 2022 KS2 SATS papers showing a clear gender gap with boys outperforming girls. So, my questions to all of you reading would be…

Is There A Gender Difference in Maths in Your School?

In this blog I will highlight why this gender gap may occur in the first place and suggest some ways in supporting closing this gap.

It is interesting that when we look at the historic data from the KS2 2019 SATS, girls outperformed boys across all subjects. This is highlighted by the percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined score with a difference of 10% between girls and boys (70% of girls and 60% of boys). When focussing on the gender difference between girls and boys achieving the expected standard in Maths, the percentage is only 1% difference (79% of girls and 79% boys). From this data analysis we can conclude that at a national level girls are outperforming boys and so any gender difference that you are experiencing may be at a local level or even cohort specific.

So first we might focus on some of the reasons why girls might not be performing as well as boys. I think one of the most important areas to focus on in this area is that of Mathematical Mindsets. In Jo Boaler’s book ‘Mathematical Mindsets’ she discusses research that highlights a gender difference in the fact that girls more often desire a depth of understanding in Maths that boys do not necessarily feel that they need. When questioned girls discuss an idea that they want to understand deeply with a focus on knowing why a method might work and how that this connects to other mathematical concepts. As teachers we would all agree that this is a goal that we would want all our pupils to have.
However, we all understand the pressure of the curriculums and trying to ensure pupils are focussed and ready for assessments in upper Key Stage 2 and due to this reason, the procedural nature of mathematics means that this deep understanding does not occur. From OECD research in 2015, when girls do not gain this deep understanding, a system is created where girls particularly begin to underachieve, are turned away from maths and a higher level of anxiety occurs in comparison to boys.

Fortunately to combat this issue, teachers need to continue to focus on high quality first teaching. Teaching and learning should focus on children gaining a deep conceptual understanding of maths rather than a focus on a procedure to gain an answer. This would include a focus on using representations and manipulatives revealing the structure of maths. The Education Endowment Foundation in their ‘Improving Mathematics in Early Years and Key Stage 1’ and ‘Improving Mathematics in Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3’ both recommend the use of manipulatives to develop understanding. This includes having a clear rationale on what manipulatives are being used in the classroom and the impact that this will have on the children’s learning. It is also important that manipulatives and representations are used to highlight the mathematics that are happening, and teachers need to explicitly highlight this during lessons.

Positive Mathematical Mindset

Another important issue when focussing on mindsets of pupils is that of parental maths anxiety and the negative impact that this has on pupils. We need to be aware that our pupils had significant time during national lockdowns away from their classroom. The school classroom is one that promotes a positive mindset towards all subjects. We know that maths learning is often something that parents have strong feelings about. On one side parents will discuss openly ‘I never liked maths, couldn’t do it and haven’t needed it in my life.’ These parents are often the ones who were taught everything procedurally and understandably could not see the connections made in maths concepts and had to tackle each individual questions without drawing upon previous knowledge. The other parents may have been successful at maths but are ones that disparage the way in which teachers draw attention to the deeper conceptual understanding that we aim pupils to gain. Instead, we often here ‘that’s not the way that I did it, just do it this way and you will get the answer.

In both instances we can understand the negative impact that this may have had on pupils. Schools need to support parents in promoting a positive mathematical mindset. Parent workshops and open mornings where parents can see the positive impact from teaching to develop a deep conceptual understanding is invaluable. With both sets of parents highlighted above parents often discuss how they would have more secure knowledge if they had been taught this way. Although this is not a specific gender issue it is one that needs to be addressing for all our pupils.

So far, we have focussed on gender difference that occurs during the later years in primary education. However, in Helen Williams’ book ‘Playful Mathematics’ it discusses a gap that occurs early on in a pupil’s life. First, we need to address the importance of spatial reasoning in early education. Research from Cheng and Mix (2014) shows that spatial reasoning is indicative of later mathematical achievement. Williams, however, discusses that gender differences in spatial play can start from an early age and to ensure that any gap between gender is diminished, spatial confidence in girls may be particularly critical. A critical way to develop spatial reasoning can be through 'block play.' It is within this ‘block play’ where gender differences can be identified the most. Often within the early years classroom boys often spend more time playing with the blocks and so spatial confidence will constantly be increasing. This is important as it suggests that rather than an innate reason, block play and the resulting ‘spatial reasoning’ may be more to do with preference of play, rather than competence of a concept.

The use of open-ended play with blocks with an interested adult playing alongside to discuss and extend children’s language and thinking can improve block play in all children. What is most intriguing however, is the research quoted in the book by Casey et al (2008). They found that introducing an oral story-telling context into the block play improved building performance, both in terms of the complexity of the structures and children’s long-term engagement in the play. This was seen the most amongst girls. An emphasis was placed on establishing a meaningful context for the construction, with the adult scaffolding the play.

What made this most successful was that the story provided both problems, and reasons that made sense. Children were given a context to make the walls taller. The characters within a story can add specific criteria for how structures are made according to specifications. Also, children could sympathise with the main character and wanted to help which gained motivation and increased the length of play.

A Final Thought...

A final thought is on the importance in closing this gender gap and what the future implications for girls and maths can be. All research indicates that less girls will join STEM careers than boys. From the discussions above we can see how girls can gain a high level of maths anxiety and gain a negative mathematical mindset in comparison to boys from an early age. Previous research has looked at the impact of showing girls role models in STEM careers. It was seen that this method was not as impactful in comparison to showing girls how the maths that they are learning is connected to future use. The research indicates that the best approach is that of a curriculum that focuses on hands on experience (perhaps allowing pupils to solve questions in real life applications that they may use later in life) with opportunities to work together (to further develop the why element of maths rather than the how).

In conclusion, even if a gender gap is not currently an issue within your school, it is important that we are aware of the causes and the ways to resolve this. All the solutions highlighted in this blog are those that we would promote anyway as good practice in schools.

About the Author

Jason Horne

Jason is part of The Education People's Primary School Improvement Service, he is a specialist improvement advisor for maths. He worked as a teacher, working across the primary age range for eleven years, and spent six years as a key leader in a primary school focussing on the improvement of maths.
Jason is a Mastery Specialist for Kent and has supported schools in their own Mastery journey for the past six years.
He is passionate about ensuring the improvement of Maths teaching and learning for all children.