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How Differences Between the Genders Affect Schooling

Ideal Classroom for Girls, Boys Not the Same

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Differences between the genders can matter in school.

Differences between the genders can matter in school.

Photo © Orbon Alija / Getty

Grandparents and parents often take differences between the genders lightly. We laugh at one granddaughter’s princess obsession and enjoy playing catch with another. We marvel at the chaos that boys can create but enjoy their sensitive, artistic sides as well. Gender differences in babies and toddlers are interesting, but generally not a subject for concern. When children enter school, however, some believe that these differences can affect the way that children learn.

Physiological Reasons for Learning Differences

Male and female brains are different, according to Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute for Mental Health. Male brains are larger than female brains, but that does not result in any difference in intelligence. Giedd says that there are differences in the sizes of certain structures in the brain that could account for some of the differences in the ways boys and girls function. In addition, girls’ brains mature earlier than boys’ brains.

Differences Between the Genders in School

The ideal school for most girls is not the ideal setting for most boys. Here are some areas where differences exist:

  • When To Start School
    Earlier is not better for most boys, who tend not to be ready for formal instruction at age 5; however, increasingly formal instruction is begun in kindergarten.
  • Classroom Atmosphere
    A noisy, busy schoolroom is ideally suited for the needs of many boys, whereas girls (and adults) may learn better in quiet.
  • Learning Styles
    Boys need learning that incorporates movement and the tactile sense.

The Real Story About Gender and Language

Conventional wisdom has observed that boys are better in math, and girls are better in language. There is some evidence of female superiority in language, but the difference is insignificant, once the age of early language acquisition is over. Girls and boys do appear to process language differently, Girls use both sides of their brains for language processing, whereas these functions appear to be limited to the left side in boys. Stuttering appears more often in boys.

The Real Story About Gender and Math

The picture for gender differences in math proficiency is less clear. It appears that girls and boys are fairly equal in math abilities during elementary school, but that during high school the boys surpass the girls. Several theories have been advanced for this development. Some believe that the entire deficit is traceable to the fact that girls in high school are less likely to enroll in higher math classes. Some believe that cultural bias causes girls to lack confidence in their mathematical abilities. We do know that boys have some advantage in spatial ability, and that skill becomes more important in the higher maths.

Emotional Differences Between the Genders

Researchers have discovered differences in the way the genders respond to emotional stress. Boys display the classic "fight or flight" pattern, while girls are more likely to manage stress by interacting with others, which some call the "tend or befriend" pattern. The typical school setting is not conducive to boys' action-oriented stress relief. Many schools provide no time for unorganized action; even recess has become physical education class. On the other hand, girls are afforded opportunity for face time with friends, which can often take place during lunch, on the bus and during group activities. Even the intervention for students with emotional problems tends to be face-to-face counseling, which is probably fine for most girls. Probably most boys would reveal more during a game of catch.

ADHD and Asperger's Syndrome

Many more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This could be because more males have the disorder, but it could also be because females tend to exhibit problems paying attention rather than demonstrating the hyperactivity that gets ADHD males noticed. Both males and females with ADHD may need special help, which may or may not include medication.

In addition, Asperger's Syndrome, one of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, may present differently in girls, leading to under-diagnosis.

The Advisability of Single-Sex Schools

Some educators and researchers believe that differences between the genders are significant enough to warrant a switch to single-sex schools. One who has written extensively on the subject is Leonard Sax, founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). Others believe that just as classrooms are able to accommodate learners with different abilities, learning styles, skills and backgrounds, they are also able to educate both genders.

More Research Needed

Clearly differences in the genders will continue to be a fertile field for researchers, since research in gender differences also illuminates many other areas of concern. It is important to remember, however, that individuals in each gender present far greater variations than when the genders are viewed as a whole. In other words, there are many girls who are far ahead of the curve in spatial ability, and many boys who are highly talented in language. Educational systems and teachers who concentrate on teaching the individual rather than focusing on gender are more likely to be successful in meeting the needs of all of their students.

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