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Rossana Sicurello


The teachers involved in the research, although operating in different organizational and institutional contexts, were unanimous in recognizing the differences between male and female

Rossana Sicurello


rossana sicurello


The psychological differences between males and females have a direct influence not only on the emotional and relational development but also on learning (Laster, 2004; Cahill, 2005; Hutton, Kilpatrick, & Wills, 2006; Kommer, 2006; Whitehead, 2006; Salomone, 2006; Lenroot et alii, 2007; Okopny, 2008; Sullivan, Joshi, & Leonard, 2010). So, one of the possible causes of failure at school may be the lack of attention by teachers and textbooks to different ways of learning, feelings and the way of relating of boys and girls (Riordan, 2011).

The need to improve the levels of learning for all, boys and girls, along with the reflections and research in the pedagogical-didactic field, showed the great importance that gender differences in the classroom have on the quality of individual school learning and today lead cause to consider insufficient the adoption of a kind of education based on the same modes of communication, rates and tools of learning for everyone (James, 2007; 2009; Gurian, Stevens, & King, 2008; Irwin, 2009; Gurian, & Stevens, 2010; Reichert & Hawley, 2010; Hoff Sommers, 2011; James, Allison, & McKenzie, 2011; Cooper, 2009; Price, 2011, 71-89; La Marca, 2011, 190-201; 2012, 65-80; Zanniello, 2009, 67-84; 2012, 81-100). In this perspective, observation, which is considered as an essential tool to calibrate the teaching and to adopt it to the characteristics of boys and girls, is a strategic element.

Teachers can collect data on their pupils in various occasions. However, proceeding in an intuitive, occasional, episodic way it is easy that the relevant information is incomplete or distorted with the consequent risk of organizing plans that respond only partially to the different educational needs of boys and girls: teachers are not always able to understand the differences in learning styles of males and females (Tamanini, 2007); besides teachers often don’t succeed nor in grasping adequately the various aspects of the differences between boys and girls, or in identifying more effective strategies to enhance the specificity of each one form time to time (La Marca, 2012, 70).

In consideration of these observations and on the basis of an overview of child’s development in primary school that focuses attention on the various psychological, relational and learning aspects and on the main theoretical framework, this paper aims to facilitate the teacher’s task to observe and understand the behaviour and learning of boys and girls both in coeducational classes and in single-sex classes so that it can offer concrete suggestions in order to choose the best constructs and signs to change the teaching.

The paper presents the descriptors of males’ and females’ behaviour and learning in primary school. The work of reflection and choice of what was explained before is part of a research which is still being carried out at the University of Palermo: this research aims to combine the achievement of equality of educational opportunities with the recognition of differences in term of communicating mode with others, learning and reformulating the information.


In the first step of the research (2010-2011) we examined the latest scientific studies on behaviour differences between boys and girls, relating to school work and social relationships, in order to identify the aspects that characterize boys’ and girls’ different ways of relating and learning. From international studies conducted over the last 20 years, you can find that boys and girls have both identical and different school behaviour. According to Zanniello1, the differences observed can be grouped into ten aspects: physical movement, basic cognitive skills, emotional response, affective manifestation, relationship with authority, relationship with peers, study skills, approach to homework, reaction to failure, sense of self.

In order to establish if there is any didactic attention between males and females, two focus groups were conducted with two groups of primary school teachers, who debated the issue of personalization of teaching, with particular reference to gender differences, and their teaching practices were collected and analyzed2. Were also observed, in a non-systematic manner, some teachers schoolboys and schoolgirls in the classes involved in the research.

In the second phase (2011-12), after a long and careful discussion within our research group at university, we examined the protocols and research data collected in the last year and we agreed on sexually differentiated behaviours more frequently observed in boys or girls in primary school. In addition to what had already been collected from April 2011 to April 2012, we considered that, to achieve a sufficient level of validity of the descriptors, it was necessary to have additional data collected in some Sicilian primary schools different from each other. We observed some different socio-cultural schools in Palermo and Agrigento.

The sample schools were chosen according to the following criteria: the class year, type of school (state or private), type of class (coeducational /single-sex), city/province. Overall, four schools in Palermo (two coeducational and two single sex), one school in Agrigento (coeducational) and one school in the province of Agrigento (coeducational) were chosen. During the months of April and May 2012 in the identified primary schools of Palermo and Agrigento, new teaching practices were collected and systematic observations were conducted in the classes by outside observers trying the descriptors which reference was made earlier. Overall, 20 coeducational classes, 4 female classes and 5 male classes were involved; then 38 teachers of which 12 men and 26 women participated; 451pupils were involved including 233 males and 218 females between 6 and 10.

From September 2012 a consultation process was launched on the descriptors by the same group of teachers and researchers. The schools identified were proactive about the proposal of reflection and monitoring of the pupils’ behaviour during classroom activities, taking the substantial differences between males and females. The teachers involved in the research, conducted a behaviour analysis on the boys and girls during the different moments of teaching: face to face teaching, group activities and physical education activities in coeducational or single-sex classes. The in-depth reading of the descriptors was accompanied by practical exercises that drove teachers to return several times on the same expressions in order to discover the telltale, authentic and representative signs of a construct in boys and girls at different ages and levels of development. Teachers have even tried to understand what is the best way to collect and organize them.

The dimensions and indicators are almost unchanged, while the descriptors were partially modified because the manifestation of behavioural signs is different in the various stages of development: teachers chose behavioural signs more and more closely linked to concrete situations typical of the first two and the last three classes of primary school. At the end of the work of reflection 10 aspects, 23 indicators and a variable number of descriptors for each indicator were identified.
We found that boys and girls, when they can choose freely, tend to do different activities: the first are more dynamic-operational, the second are more static-relational.
Between seven and ten years-old, boys are more skillful in the perception of spatial relationships, while the girls are more successful in the performance of linguistic skills.

Overall the girls are more skillful in dealing with anxiety than the boys.

The frequency of interventions in the classroom is observed for both males and females at all ages but more often in boys; girls wait before speaking up and interrupt less while others are talking. They have more skill and patience in supporting the conversations of classmates.

Significant differences also exist in the affective manifestations of boys and girls. At the same age, boys have more difficulties than girls in expressing their feelings and emotions. Unlike the boys, the girls are able to express naturally and spontaneously their intimacy, and their mutual confidences and conversations that are linked to issues of personal spheres.

Unlike girls, the boys agree to perform their duties only if they understand the reason and if they find intrinsically interesting the proposed activity. They are less inclined to accept the authority of adults and often, more than girls, do not respect the rules in the classroom. Both males and females at all ages recognizes the role and position of the adult.

The girls carry out the commitment to teamwork, even if they are not strictly supervised by the teacher. Unlike males, who consider the help of the teacher only as a last resort, the girls seek teacher’s help if they are in difficulty or if they are unsure on how to tackle a task; the girls ask the teacher questions. Male and female love to drove by the teachers.

The girls care not to disappoint the expectations of adults; instead the boys don’t mind about the judgment of parents and teachers. Both males and females at all ages, in coeducational or in single-sex classes, researches teacher’ gratification.

In the relationship with other, girls are generally more supportive and tend to listen to others. Moreover, in the associative dynamics the girls manifest more flexibility. Limits in girls’ groups are usually subject to changes due to their relational dynamics (arguments and gossip) created in it. The male groups, however, are more stable because the likes and dislikes are put aside.

The girls are more autonomous in the study; they show easiness in organizing their own activities and tasks, are more tidy in the management of notebooks, and hand jobs are well done. As a general rule, the girls can concentrate more and are more able than boys in the organization of their school work. On average, the girls have greater ability to meta-comprehension than boys: during storytelling females are able to distinguish main characters from secondary ones; they are able to summarize the situation, events and characters after the teachers have read a story in class. In both coeducational and single-sex classes they do diagrams and maps to better remember what they studied and they are able to connect all the different disciplines together.

In general, we observe that boys and girls differ in how they begin, perform and complete school work. The girls prefer to face problems in a collective perspective. Girls seek support
from peers in cooperative activities while male and female support each other in class discussions. Girls love to work together because they are more empathetic and supportive than males. The girls prefer educational methods such as role playing and cooperative learning, methodologies not very popular with boys.

In both coeducational and single-sex classes, the males prefer competitive sports and games that involve some controlled use of strength. The competition serves to motivate the boys, even in learning activities. The boys like to be challenged and accept tasks where they feel challenged, they prefer educational activities that involve both individual and team competition. The same is not true for girls.

Girls tend to generalize the causes of their failures. Boys, in contrast, appear to see their failures as relevant only to the specific subject area in which they have failed. As to the fact of being defeated, in girls the sense of unease expressed in terms of insufficiency, incapability and low self-esteem. The boys on the other hand do not care about having given a bad impression. If guided by the teacher, male and female assume responsibility for errors and failures.

Broadly speaking girls, differently to boys have an impression of less effectiveness in their studies than what is in reality; contrary to boys, the girls avoid situations of confrontation with others and do not get involved in the discussions in coeducational classes because they are afraid of making mistakes in front of others. Both coeducational and single-sex classes the boys enjoy doing risky things, systematically overestimating their own abilities, the girls tend to underestimate.
Between nine and ten years-old, girls from single-sex classes reported a better self-efficacy than girls from coeducational classes, while boys’ self-efficacy did not vary according to class composition.

In the course of research work it grew the chance to verify the manifestation of the behavioural and identified signs.

In Table I and Table II, it can read the descriptors of behaviour and learning at the beginning of the pupils of the first and second class and then of third, fourth and fifth grade of primary school. The plus signs (+) or minus (-) refer to the greater or minor frequency with which a behaviour has been detected in one of two sex different groups. Bibliographical references refer to studies which, together with the observations conducted by the teachers and the research group, have given rise to the aspects and indicators. According to a greater or minor frequency with which a particular behaviour was detected in the school life of males or females, we say the indicator is more masculine or feminine. This is clearly an “average truth” which says nothing about the way of thinking, feeling and action of each individual.


The teachers involved in the research, although operating in different organizational and institutional contexts, were unanimous in recognizing the differences between male and female behaviour and learning and expressed their awareness of how this is useful to organize an educational intervention that can promote the originality of each individual.

The monitoring was interesting for teachers as issues arose very useful to set educational planning and interventions in the classroom, identifying strategies, taking into account gender differences, can make it more engaging and interesting learning/teaching processes.

It was possible to collect proposals for new aspects, indicators and descriptor of behaviour that may contribute to the formulation of new hypotheses for each time evolution of the sample chosen. Based on the work of reflection on the descriptors during the first quarter of school year 2012-13 will be collected and analyzed teaching practices “gender” that the group of primary school teachers are going to plan together with the researcher and implement in their coeducational or single-sex classes.


The teachers involved in the research, although operating in different organizational and institutional contexts, were unanimous in recognizing the differences between male and female