Monday, June 19, 2006

Why Gender Matters in Education

I originally posted this without enough documentation. I received a very nice email from Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, Executive Director, NASSPE. He gently pointed out that I quoted him extensively, but didn't give the appropriate link or reference. So here's the update with better links.


I recently became interested in the effect gender has on brain development. Research is demonstrating profound differences in how boys and girls learn. Unfortunately, much of this information is not finding its way to parents or teachers. As a woman teaching only girls, this hasn't been a problem. However, I’ve found that I was increasingly frustrated with the little boys I interacted with at church and homeschool co-op. As I become better informed on gender brain differences, I find that I now actually enjoy working with boys.

Please note that these sex differences vary from person to person. Some females have a more masculine brain structure and some males have a more female brain structure. There are also some children who have an androgynous brain type which allows them to perform well in a wide variety of brain activities.

Here’s a few things that I’ve learned.

* Girls can hear sounds much softer than the faintest sounds audible to boys

* Stress hormones can improve male performance and impair female performance.

This may explain why boys often perform better on timed tests. Also, boys often respond well to a teacher with a loud, in-your-face approach while girls could be traumatized by this style of teaching.

* Girls can interpret facial expressions better than boys.

Boys often interpret the actions of others in a more threatening way because they don't accurately read the other person.

* Boys tend to overestimate their own abilities, while girls have a tendency to underestimate their own abilities. Girls with a lower self-esteem do better academically than boys.

* Girls mature into an “adult” brain in the middle teen age years. The pre-frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for judgment and impulse control, may not be fully formed in boys until they are twenty years of age or older.

From the NASSPE website:

* In adolescence, brain activity associated with emotion moves up to the cerebral cortex. This change occurs only in girls. In boys, the locus of emotional control remains stuck in the amygdala.

As a result, boys and men can be more vulnerable than girls because they lack the means to verbally processes emotional events.

* The areas of the brain involved in language and fine motor skills mature about six years earlier in girls than in boys

* The areas of the brain involved in targeting and spatial memory mature about four years earlier in boys than in girls

The scope and sequence of teaching math and language would need to accomodate the differences in maturation. Strict guidelines for grade level would not be in the best interest of children with varying degrees of brain development. I found this out the hard way. Now I just wait to teach subject material until the child shows readiness to learn. Both my children and I are less frustrated this way.

Note: NASSPE is the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. It is an intriguing thought. There are enough boys and girls that cross over into the opposite gender's style of learning to question the effectiveness of this approach.

(However, after giving it more thougth, I find that I like the idea of single sex education more and more.)

It might be more efficient to test children for learning style and then match curriculum and teaching method to the child, whether educated at a school or homeschool setting.

I once had a conversation with a college professor who taught sociology. She was adament that all gender differences were the result of socialization. I was brought up with this philosophy too. When our daughters were small, we bought traditionally male toys like race cars, construction sets and building blocks. Our daughters were never interested in those toys. The only thing they ever built with the blocks was a baby doll bed. I finally gave most of the toys to Good Will. We kept the blocks because we could always use another baby doll bed.

For more information on brain/gender differences, check out the following resources:

Why Gender Matters

Boys and Girls Learn Differently

The Michael Gurian Educational Institute

Brain Sex

Excerpts from Brain Sex

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NerdMom said...

I need a little clarification. When you said test to find out the curriculum, were you proposing to seperate the students at that point? My only problem is the one girl with the guys and vice versa.

Queen of Carrots said...

Intriguing. I have to say, though, my 2yo daughter plays with Duplos every single day; of course, half the time that's changing the diapers of the Duplo men, but the other half it's building towers. Her read-aloud books are about 50/50 between cute baby animals and trucks. So I'm guessing she's more androgynously brained, which is nice, because so am I.

The great thing about homeschooling is that it doesn't matter whether you fit the stereotype or not.

Janine Cate said...

>When you said test to find out >the curriculum, were you >proposing to seperate the >students at that point?

I'm a homeschooler. So, the gender of the class is not going to change, unless we are blessed with another child who just happens to be a boy.

In a school setting, knowing a childs learning style would help the teacher meet the needs of all the students in the class, whether girls, boys, or a mix.

I can see some benefits of single gender classes, especially in the teen years, regardless of brain type.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Excellent post. As a guy "stuck in the amygdala," I would think this is why guys hit a wall (or person) with a fist or drive fast to work out frustration.

I had a friend who went to an all-boy Catholic high school and he swore that was the best way to educate. We were only 18 or 19 and I was aghast at such an idea then. Now I see it is probably a good idea for many reasons.

Janine Cate said...

I think too many teachers and parents view little boys as "broken girls." I think I was guilty of that.

In the book, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, Michael Gurian remarked on the hormones in our system that are released during an emotional upset. These hormones stay in the blood stream of boys (and men) much longer than women. Because women experience emotion in the cerebral cortex, they can calm themselves down by talking about the upset, so the hormones clear their system faster.

I'm listening to this book on my mp3 player. As a result, it is hard to look up a particular passage and quote it directly. I think I will break down and buy the book so that I can have an easy reference.