The Gender Laws of Physics

I listened with interest to a discussion on the Radio 4 Today programme about why girls educated in a single sex school were 2.5 times more likely to study Physics at ‘A’ Level than girls in coeducational schools. Professor Athene Donald from Cambridge University argued that societal factors played their part – unconscious signals in coeducational setting may well deter girls.

It is certainly true that the style of a girls’ school can be tailored to their way of being. I have been fortunate in my career to work in single sex girls’ schools and a coeducational school which was structured in a diamond formation i.e. boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms between the ages of 11-16. The latter model was a Petri dish of learning. As I moved between boys and girls classes it was abundantly clear that their way of learning was markedly different for a range of reasons. The educational research around gender difference notes that in Mathematics and Sciences there is objective evidence supporting higher attainment when girls are taught in a single sex setting.

Why? The reasons are complex. There is inevitably a certain level of stereotyping about how boys and girls learn. Boys demonstrate a level of confidence which can be daunting for the teenage girl. They are more likely to have a go while girls can fear getting it wrong. Teachers have the ultimate differentiated learning setting to address this and to actively encourage self confidence in a boy free classroom. Without boys, girls can be themselves unaware that subjects like Physics are ‘meant to be’ the domain of boys. Indeed, teachers can play on the boy free zone by tuning into girls’ interests e.g. magnetic nail varnish and remembering to talk about hair dryers as much as power drills when discussing electric motors. Real girl power!

It is interesting that in certain maintained schools in various parts of the country, Mathematics is set not just according to ability but according to gender. Given the growing crisis in Physics recruitment at sixth form level where over half state schools have no girls studying Physics, such a radical solution needs serious consideration.

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