By Linda Stade

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It would surprise most to learn that in last year’s NAPLAN, girls out performed boys in every test at every year level. Take a moment to consider that. Girls did better than boys in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions and even the holy cow, Numeracy. They did that in every year group…Australia wide. More than 85 per cent of girls achieved at or above the national minimum standard for persuasive writing, compared to just 69.9 per cent of boys. In numeracy, 96 per cent of Year 9 boys achieved the minimum standard compared to 96.6 per cent of girls. (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority)

Now consider this. Girls equaled or out performed boys in every subject of 2015’s Western Australian Certificate of Education exams. Every subject. (Western Australian School Curriculum and Standards Authority)

First I’ll say, “Well done girls. Good job!” Because let’s face it, that’s quite a feat. But why has this happened? And why isn’t there more discussion of it?  The shift has been so gradual that now we’re saying, “Whoa! What happened here?”

Have we been so intent on empowering our girls and overcoming the unequal opportunities of the past that we have created a generation of girls who are in the perfect mindset for success? Meanwhile, perhaps our boys are still thinking the world is built for them so it will all figure itself out in the end. (They may still be right. Let’s not kid ourselves that post-school opportunities are equal, but that’s another blog.)

Girls’ schools, in particular, do seem to have found the magic formula. Australia wide they are overwhelmingly, and repeatedly, featuring in the top performing schools. Of the 100 top performing schools in 2014 NAPLAN, 46 were girls’ schools. Considering girls’ schools make up just 7% of the total schools in Australia, that is an astounding result.

It is important to recognise that there was a change in curriculum structure in the mid 80s. Much greater emphasis was placed on long-term project work in order to better reflect the nature of work in post-school life. Santa Maria College principal, Ian Elder, believes that a consequence of this change was that girls were better able to thrive. Before this there had been more tests and a lot less assignments. There has also been a lot more focus on open questioning and open-ended tasks. These approaches have traditionally been the preference of girls, not boys. This doesn’t, however, explain the changes in science and numeracy results.

Mr Elder observes that, “Pre 1986, the final result was 100% the examination. Many males would comment that they liked this model. In the university-bound stream we now have the school-based component (50%) and the examination (50%). While the school based mark involves predominantly tests and exams, girls also excel in the more project-based tasks assigned. Regardless, this style of continuous assessment requires considerable perseverance, commitment and self-discipline. Could we argue that overall girls are more likely to be the higher achievers in this type of assessment?” It’s a reasonable question.

Not only has course assessment changed but so has content. Subjects such as English, Literature, History and Politics and Law now present a more balanced gender viewpoint. Many girls appear to be better at code shifting. That means they can read and process just as easily from a male perspective in a text as a female perspective. Media requires them to do this constantly. Our boys on the other hand may resist texts with a female perspective or a lead female character. That surely can’t be helping their cause.

Dr Andrew Martin, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Sydney University says, “Too many boys labour under a very narrow view of what success is: marks, performance, the pecking order…Only a few kids can be at the top of a pecking order so students who have that narrow view cut themselves off from any possible success on a daily basis.”

He says we need to help boys broaden their understanding of success to include effort, goal setting, class participation and skill development.

“Personal best performances are accessible to every boy on a daily basis: you are your own benchmark, you do not have to compete with the dux of the school to feel that you’ve succeeded.”

So, how can we help all of our teens experience academic success?

  1. Relationships with teachers are important to success. Foster those relationships; discourage blame and negativity about teachers. Your child’s teacher is your ally.
  2. Encourage kids to read, read, read from a variety of texts, from a variety of perspectives.
  3. Help your child with goal setting and organization.
  4. Promote imagination and creativity, it is a great tool in developing your child’s academic success as well as their personal well-being.
  5. Redefine success in the way you talk with your child. Successes in organization, small goals and relationships are the wins that will cause shifts in attitude and motivation.

Read more: Andrew Martin (2008) How to Motivate Your Child for School and Beyond. Random House:Sydney

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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.