What's the maths difference between boys and girls?
An interesting experiment
24 January 2014
It was reported in the news this week that 15 year old girls lag three months behind boys in maths.  But many primary school teachers will tell you that they notice a lag like this in test results at a much earlier age, somewhere between the age of 8 and 10 (Years 4 and 6) in fact.
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a school that had identified this as an issue (far more boys were reaching "Level 6" at the end of primary than girls), and wanted to do something about it.  They asked if I could come and do a session just for the girls, to help boost their confidence.
I was uneasy about this at first.  What message would a girls-only session send to the girls, and would the boys feel annoyed that only the girls had the 'treat' of a visiting speaker?  We agreed that the girls shouldn't be favoured, so I was to do one session for Year 5 boys and one for Year 5 girls, but even then, colleagues that I discussed it with were worried that this segregation might draw attention to a difference between the genders which shouldn't - or doesn't - exist.
I could see plenty of possible pitfalls and debated whether to do different material for the two groups.  I wondered if maybe I should give the girls more collaborative activities and give the boys mathematical magic tricks and games to investigate. Fortunately I abandoned this idea, and decided instead to do identical sessions for the two groups.  In as far as I was able, I treated the two groups exactly the same, with the same language, examples and time allocation.
My introduction (to both groups), paraphrased, was this: "My eldest child is a ten year old girl [same age as you], and when she grows up she thinks she either wants to be an engineer or a scientist [this is true].   Who can tell me what engineers and scientists do?"
Both the girl and boy groups thought of engineers as doing outdoor things - cars, bridges and so on - though the boys came up with more examples.  I explained that engineers had actually been involved in just about everything they could see around them in the classroom we were in: designing the computers, creating the furniture, even manufacturing the food.  And engineers need maths all the time.  Both groups thought this was interesting and a bit surprising.
The girls and boys knew that scientists do experiments to test out theories. "And today" I explained, "we are all going to be scientists, because we are taking part in an experiment, .The experiment is to see if the type of maths that girls like is different from the type of maths that boys like.  I am going to show you some maths, and get you to vote later for which bits you liked the most.  We will see if your group likes different things from the others."  They liked the sound of this experiment.
Before we got going, I did a straw poll of both groups, and perhaps a third of each gender group thought that boys and girls like different maths from each other, though nobody could give me a concrete example. "OK, your hypothesis is that you like different things, but if you want to be scientists, you have to test this out to see if it is true," I said.
Now came the maths.  I planned six activities in just under an hour, with 45 children in each group (it is a three-form entry school).  There were two mathematical mind-reading tricks involving numbers, a visual puzzle, an investigation of Mobius strips, and two games - a subtraction game called Diffy and a strategy coin game called, er, The Coin Game.
Of all the activities the Coin game was the most competitive, because it was child versus me in front of the class, and I usually win at least the first five contests, which gets the audience increasingly energised.
Afterwards I had a meeting with all the teachers at which we discussed what we had observed.  We noticed that:
- Both groups were fully engaged, and they loved the content.
- There was no obvious difference in aptitude between the boys and the girls for any of the activities.
- The boys group was far noisier, and more competitive.  They were keener to test me out, call out answers, challenge the rules, and to demonstrate that they had figured something out (even though they usually hadn't).  When I wanted volunteers, a higher proportion of boys put up hands than girls.
- The girls were fully engaged, but tended to be more reflective and wanted to discuss with each other what they had seen.
- The boys were more adventurous.  In Diffy and 'think of a number', more of them wanted to test out really big numbers - 500 million was the largest they suggested.  In contrast, the biggest number that the girls tested out was 240.
- The girls showed more interest than the boys in wanting to try out all the activities for themselves later.
- In the game of Diffy, which can be played either solo or as a game between two children, ALL the girls decided to play it collaboratively in pairs.  In contrast, while most of the boys started in pairs, after a few minutes almost half were going solo, seeing if they could beat their previous record.
I suspect a lot of primary teachers will not be surprised by these observations.  And while I have picked out the most noticeable behaviour differences, I should point out that there was a huge overlap, many boys and girls behaved in a very similar way to each other.
Afterwards, all the children were asked to vote on which two activities they had enjoyed most.  My guess was that the girls would vote for the collaborative/investigative activities, like Diffy and the Mobius strip.  But in fact, over 80% of the girls named the competitive Coin game as one of their top two activities, compared to only 20% who voted for Diffy.  For the boys, only 55% went for the Coin game and 30% for Diffy.  The number card mind-reading trick was more popular with the girls than the boys.  In short, the results didn't fit any stereotype that I might have expected.
So what IS the difference between boys and girls when it comes to maths?  In terms of innate ability, probably nothing.  But in behaviour and attitude, we certainly observed some differences in our two groups of primary children.
Was this experiment helpful?  And should the school repeat it?   I know there are educationalists with strong views on this - both pro and anti the idea of differentiating between boys and girls. All I can say is that as a one-off experiment, we all - me, the children and the teachers - found it fascinating.
This blog has generated quite a bit of reaction, including a few comments via Twitter.  One valid comment is that although I described this to the children as a "scientific experiment", it didn't have the rigour of being truly scientific.  However much I tried to treat the two groups the same, I bet there were subliminal differences in my presentation that I wasn't aware of.  Maybe some of our observations (about levels of noise, degree of engagement of the children) were biased by what we expected to see.  I didn't quantify any of the observations (eg that 'more' boys came up with engineering examples than girls, a 'higher' proportion of boys put hands up etc).  So all I can claim is that this was an experiment that tried to be objective.
The lead teacher later asked the children what they thought about the session.  One observation stands out.  In the feedback, he told me that the girls said they liked not having the boys present, whereas the boys didn't mention the absence of girls.