How Differences Between the Genders Affect Schooling

Ideal Classroom for Girls, Boys Not the Same

The genders can perform quite differently in school.
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Parents and grandparents are learning to take differences between the genders lightly. We're learning that one little girl may be obsessed with princesses while another only wants to play catch. We marvel at the chaos that boys can create but enjoy their sensitive, artistic sides as well.

Gender differences may not be crucial during the early years, but when children enter school, gender differences and gender stereotyping can affect the way children learn.

Reasons for Learning Differences

Researchers have found that certain characteristics are more common in boys, and other are more prevalent in girls. In fact, children exhibit gender differences even as babies and toddlers. There is still disagreement about whether these differences are truly innate or whether they are created through socialization. Gender schema theory states that children modulate their behavior to fit in with their cultural norms. Conversely, researchers have found some biological differences in girls and boys, other than the differences in their sex-related characteristics.

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 scientists have concluded that the size difference 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

There is some evidence that the classroom needs of girls and boys are different. 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. Increasingly, however, 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 process language using a part of their brain that is used for abstract thinking, according to one researcher. Boys, on the other hand, process spoken language with the part of the brain that responds to auditory stimuli, and they process written language with the part of the brain that processes visual stimuli. In addition, stuttering appears more often in boys.

The Real Story About Gender and Math

The picture for gender differences in math proficiency is less clear. At least one recent study found no gender difference in math ability. Historically, girls and boys have appeared to be fairly equal in math abilities during elementary school, but during high school the boys have surpassed the girls.

The traditional explanation has been that boys have some advantage in spatial skills. However, if the math gap is disappearing, that may mean that the entire gender difference in math was due to cultural bias and to the fact that girls have historically been less likely to enroll in higher math classes. 

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. Some contend that ADHD is often overlooked in girls. Both males and females with ADHD may need special help, which may or may not include medication. 

A similar scenariio may be at work with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Many more boys than girls are diagnosed but that may be because autism presents differently in girls.

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, teachers and families 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.