Gender Stereotypes and School: Handwriting

In July 2017, I went into two schools and conducted some research for my master’s thesis. Now that my thesis has finally been submitted and accepted, I have decided to share some of my findings.

Part of my analysis involved ranking the participants by the quality of their handwriting, which was done using comparative judgement – a much more suitable method for subjective tasks such as art and writing than, for example, grading with the use of rubrics, and often more reliable (Pollitt, 2012 (1); Whitehouse & Pollitt, 2012 (2)). The downside of such a method, especially when using a small sample, is that the ranking does not necessarily accurately reflect the true variation between the quality of examples. For instance, the examples ranked third and fourth could be very different in quality, while those ranked fifth and tenth could be very similar if most of the examples are very similar with the exception of a few outliers.

It is important to note that these (anonymised) examples only received a single judgement each so that, although comparative judgement is a very reliable method, the rankings may be inaccurate. In addition, some examples provided only a few letters, making accurate judgement difficult. Therefore these results should be considered merely exploratory, intended to provide gateways to further research.

The Literature

  • Arnot et al. (1998)(3) found that girls always outperformed boys in handwriting, along with numerous other aspects of English.
  • Dweck et al. (1978)(4) noted that girls were nearly twice as likely as boys to receive positive feedback relating to non-intellectual aspects of their work, such as neatness.
  • In a survey of science teachers, Spear (1989)(5) found that nearly all participants who believed there were differences between boys’ and girls’ work described girls’ work as neat and well-presented and boys’ work as the opposite. Spear also cites a number of studies that found that girls tend to care more about the neatness of their work, and therefore produce neater work as a result.
  • Both Spear and Younger and Warrington (1996)(6) mention that boys are more likely to rush through their work in an attempt to finish it as quickly as possible and move onto other activities.

It is also worth considering a possible link between handwriting neatness and performance in art. I had found, in another part of the study, a correlation of +0.52 (< 0.01) between the quality of handwriting and quality of drawing (judged using the same method as the handwriting). There are a number of possible reasons for this, such as more developed fine motor skills and pen control and an inclination to take care over one’s work. I had also learned that more than half of the participants associated art with girls.

In light of all this, I predicted that girls would likely rank higher for handwriting than boys.

The Context

This research was conducted in two schools.

The first is a fee-paying independent school which, according to the school website, serves just over 150 pupils aged between three and eleven, with an even split of girls and boys (gov.uk). Data regarding pupils’ first language is not recorded by the government, and very few pupils in the school are recorded as having a statement of SEN or EHCP (gov.uk). The senior leadership team are mostly female. The participating students were from two year 2 forms with female teachers. As all participating pupils were in year two, they would, therefore, have been between 69.7 and 81.7 months of age.

The second school is a state school. There are two head teachers – one male and one female – and the class teacher was female. It had around 300 pupils, aged between four and eleven, on its roll in the 2016-17 academic year (gov.uk), about 55% of whom were female, with a higher than average proportion eligible for Free School Meals (just over 30% in 2016-17). Furthermore, it has an above average percentage of students with English as an additional language (around 30%) and of pupils with SEN support (nearly 40%). All participating pupils were in year three, and would, therefore, have been between 81.7 and 93.7 months of age.

It can be safely assumed, based on the above information, that in general, pupils at School1 come from families with higher socioeconomic status than pupils at School2.

The Findings

Indeed, girls did tend to achieve higher ranks than boys, with the average rank in handwriting being 16.67 (n = 15, SD = 7.08) out of 26 for girls and 9.18 (n = 11, SD = 6.37) for boys (F crit = 4.26, F = 7.71) (a higher number represents a better rank).

These ranks were then considered in relation to participants’ scores on an earlier activity in the study.

There were noticeable correlations when it came to handwriting. Among the restricted sample of girls (n = 13), there was a positive correlation (r = +0.38), although this was statistically insignificant, while among boys there was a significant negative correlation (r = -0.62, p < 0.1). In other words, boys who held more stereotyped views about ‘girls’ activities’ and ‘boys’ activities’ tended to have worse handwriting, while the opposite was true (to a lesser extent) for girls.

This correlation was slightly stronger (r = -0.67) at the state school, where stereotyping scores were also slightly higher, further suggesting that stronger stereotypes have a negative effect on boys’ handwriting. However, samples began to get very small at this stage (n = 7), so p-values began to get quite big.

Why does this matter?

These findings are important because school teachers have been shown to mark work with neater handwriting more favourably (Eames & Loewenthal, 1990 (7)) while those with poorer handwriting are likely to be judged negatively (Tucha et al., 2008 (8); Weintraub & Graham, 2000 (9)). Additionally, because neat handwriting is considered important in schools, those with poorer handwriting may suffer from low self-esteem and lack of motivation (Tucha et al. 2008 (8)). Weintraub and Graham (2000)(9) state that good handwriting skills aid pupils in composition and comprehension, as it leaves more of the limited capacity of the working memory (Cowan, 2010(10)) available, and allows faster writing (which is useful for, for example, taking notes in classes or answering essay questions in exams), while difficulty in handwriting can lead to a view among pupils that they cannot write, which can hinder their development later on. Furthermore, early handwriting skills can predict later academic attainment, particularly in maths and reading (Medwell & Wray, 2017(11)).

David Didau has also written about the importance of fluency in handwriting here (and I owe him thanks for some of the references cited above).

Now, this is obviously a small-scale study with numerous limitations, and I am not for a second suggesting that it proves anything. However, I believe it is worth considering that children’s stereotypical views regarding gender affect far more than just the toys they play with or the subjects they choose (although, of course, these things are massively important!). They could be affecting their academic attainment in any number of far more subtle ways.

References

  1. Pollitt, A. (2012) ‘The method of Adaptive Comparative Judgement’, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 19(3), pp. 281-300
  2. Whitehouse, C. and A. Pollitt (2012) Using Adaptive Comparative Judgement to Obtain a Highly Reliable Rank Order in Summative Assessment. Manchester, UK. (Accessed: 3 July 2018)
  3. Arnot, M., J. Gray, M. James and J. Rudduck (1998) Recent Research on Gender and Educational Performance. (Accessed: 28 June 2018)
  4. Dweck, C. S., W. Davidson, S. Nelson and B. Enna (1978) ‘Sex Differences in Learned Helplessness: II. The Contingencies of Evaluative Feedback in the Classroom and III. An Experimental Analysis’, Developmental Psychology, 14(3), pp. 268-276. (Accessed: 15 July 2018)
  5. Spear, M. G. (1989) ‘Differences between the Written Work of Boys and Girls’, British Educational Research Journal, 15(3), pp. 271-277 (Accessed: 15 July 2018)
  6. Younger, M. and Warrington, M. (1996) ‘Differential Achievement of Girls and Boys at GCSE: some observations from the perspective of one school’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 17(3), pp. 299-313
  7. Eames, K. and K. Loewenthal (1990) ‘Effects of Handwriting and Examiner’s Expertise on Assessment of Essays’, The Journal of Social Psychology, 130(6), pp. 831-833
  8. Tucha, O., L. Tucha and K. W. Lange (2008) ‘Graphonomics, automaticity and handwriting assessment’, Literacy, 42(3), pp. 145-155 (Accessed: 28 June 2018)
  9. Weintraub, N. and S. Graham (2000) ‘The Contribution of Gender, Orthographic, Finger Function, and Visual-Motor Processes to the Prediction of Handwriting Status’, The Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(2), pp. 121-140
  10. Cowan, N. (2010) ‘The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why?’, Current directions in psychological science, 19(1), pp. 51-57
  11. Medwell, J. and Wray, D. (2017) Primary English: Knowledge and Understanding. 8th ed. London: SAGE Publishing
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