Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Boys will be Boys

Rowntree Foundation Report in 2007 found that early gender differences reflect a pattern that can continue right up to age 16, when boys outnumber girls by 20% as low achievers at GCSE. And if that wasn’t bad enough, researchers and policy developers assert that this underperformance and inability to work hard results in disaffection in low achieving boys, causing disruptive behaviour, and potentially a run in with the criminal justice system. Could playing games make a difference?

Various suggestions have been made as to why girls are outperforming boys: the historical bias against girls has been eradicated; teaching has become feminised; teaching has become girl centric (Professor Caroline Gipps at Kingston University identifies boys' refusal to adopt collaborative learning strategies as a factor in their falling behind, particularly before 16); and others suggest that boys think they are too cool for school.

There probably isn’t one single solution to raising boys attainment, but good teaching that adapts to varied learning styles is a good starting point. Some researchers suggest that gender has significant impact on learning styles while others think that the effect is more nuanced. Researchers from Cambridge University found girls were more likely to be visual learners, but when they asked students about which skills (from listening, looking and doing) they found easiest and hardest, they discovered that overall, the 'doing' skill was most often regarded as the easiest skill and listening the hardest by both boys and girl.

The trick is to ensure that VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) elements occur together rather than separately. Any gender bias toward visual, auditory, kinaesthetic learning is therefore dealt with and the reality is that many learners are usually combinations of VAK. In addition to learning styles, curriculum experts propose new ways in which education should be delivered to boys. They include an emphasis on using technology for learning; learning as part of a group; taking a lead role; developing communication skills; and solving problems as a part of learning.

Games based learning can help, as their technological basis can support visual, auditory AND kinaesthetic learning. Collaborative games can also allow players to take on different roles as leaders within the group. They enable students to develop personal learning and thinking skills. These soft skills are particularly enhanced if the game is played at a group level rather than being a person to computer experience. In my work with games-ED, I have seen first-hand, the power that collaborative games can have in education from primary schools through to higher education.

But, what about girls? The theory is that boys play games more than girls. Historically (if you can use that word for products that have been with us for 30-ish years) boys have certainly been keener than girls. But that is not to say that girls do not play games. In fact, games like Tomb Raider and "The Sims" have proved very successful with many female players.

Analysis of The Sims can also tell us a lot about what girls like and more importantly what they don’t like in certain types of games. Research shows that, at least four factors can account for the gender preferences in computer game playing. Three concern the content typically found in games: archaic gender role portrayals, violence, and lack of social interaction. The fourth factor is that games can be too focussed on winning.

In delivering games based learning in education in the UK, I have not seen gender differences and I have delivered to all boys, all girls and mixed classes in all age groups.  I attribute this to the fact that games-ED products are simulation-based and are played together with a collaborate score.

Choosing the right games is therefore a key factor in the success of games based learning. Commercial games will tend to focus more on male preferences, although the games that have more use in education such as simulations will be less gender specific. Also for pedagogic reasons, commercial games have their limitations as I have written in a previous blog, so purpose built curriculum based games based learning is the best route to achieving significant learning outcomes. The RETAIN model could help you choose an appropriate product. The Relevance, Embedding, Transfer, Adaption, Immersion and Naturalisation (RETAIN) Model was developed to:

1. Support game based learning development, and
2. Assess how well games based learning contains and incorporates academic content.

So will boys be boys? Well in education, the trend seems to have become fairly fixed over the last couple of decade, so maybe it is the time to do something different. Games based learning might not be THE panacea to raising attainment in boys, but it is part of solution and one that is achievable, even in these times of austerity.


Pat Bricheno and Mike Youngee, 2004, Some unexpected results of a learning styles intervention.
Eurydice (European Commission) Report 2010, Gender Differences in Educational Outcomes. Study on Measures Taken and the Current Situation in Europe.
Hartmann, T., and Klimmt, C. (2006). Gender and computer games: Exploring females' dislikes.
Nicholas Pyke, TES Magazine (2004), Gender gap.
Rowntree Foundation Report 2007, Tackling Low Educational Achievement.
Mike Younger and Molly Warrington (2005) Raising Boys’ Achievement.

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