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London - The belief that girls are brainier and better behaved is holding boys back at school, research suggests.
A study of British pupils found that, from a young age, children think girls are academically superior.
And, what’s more, they believe that adults think so too.
University of Kent researchers said the beliefs may be self-fulfilling and help explain why boys lag behind at so many subjects.
Simply boosting boys’ self-belief could help close the academic gap, they said.
Research showed that boys performed better in tests when told they were as good as girls.
In the first part of the study, 238 pupils aged between four and ten were given a series of statements about children’s ability and behaviour.
Examples included “This child doesn’t do very well at school” and “The teacher is taking the register in class and this child sits very quietly, waiting for their name to be called out”.
The children were then asked to point to a picture of a boy or girl, to indicate which gender they thought the “story” was about.
From the age of four, the girls linked the negative statements with boys.
And by the age of seven, boys shared the belief that they were naughtier and did less well at school. Follow-up questions showed the children thought that adults had similar expectations.
The second part of the study found that stereotypes seemed to be holding boys back.
When boys aged seven to eight were told that they tend to do worse at school than girls, they scored more poorly in reading, writing and mathematics tests than those who were not primed for failure. And telling children aged six to nine before a test that both sexes were expected to do equally well improved the boys’ performance.
Lead researcher Bonny Hartley said: “People’s performance suffers when they think others may see them through the lens of negative expectations for specific facial, class and other social stereotypes – such as those related to gender – and so expect them to do poorly.
“This effect, known as the stereotype threat, grants stereotypes a self-fulfilling power.”
The origin of the stereotype is unclear but it may be that, as boys grow older, they become more aware of the general perception that ‘boys will be boys’.
They may also be discouraged by streaming in schools if it leads to more girls being placed in high-ability groups.
Study co-author Dr Robbie Sutton said: “Our study suggests that by counteracting the stereotypes in the classroom – wherever they might have come from originally – we can help boys do better.” - Daily Mail