How do boys and girls experience school? Somewhat differently it seems, because their learning styles tend to differ somewhat. Although individual differences always trump gender-related differences, here are some differences between the ways boys and girls in K12 grades classrooms behave that have implications for teaching and learning.
Girls are more likely to
Boys are more likely to
1. be good listeners -a trait that serves them well in today’s language-rich classrooms. 1. do well when using mathematical-logical thinking.
2. print neatly and follow directions carefully.
2. settle for messy handwriting and disorganized work.
3. sit calmly in their seats.
3. need space to spread out their materials; move around in that space. 4. gather facts before they draw conclusions.
4. deduce conclusions from general statements.
5. need concrete examples when learning abstract principles. 5. be comfortable with mathematical symbols and general ideas in math. 6. need to talk about their subject before beginning a writing project.
6. lose focus on a writing task and spend little time talking about what they plan to write.
7. work well in cooperative groups.
7. Prefer to work alone; argue over who will lead when working in a group 8. entertain themselves during boring parts of the school day. 8. act out and disrupt the class when bored.
9. pay attention to more than one activity at a time.
9. find it hard to concentrate on learning when they are upset. 10. discuss problems with a teacher.
10. act as if they don’t care about learning when they are confused or frustrated. At a primary school Manning, a small town 65 miles east of Columbia, South Carolina, second grade teachers Holly Garneau and Anna Lynne Gamble are convinced that segregating elementary-age boys and girls produces immediate academic improvement—in both genders. Eager to capitalize on their past progress, the two created a teaching plan for the upcoming semester. The kids will be in a coed environment for homeroom, lunch, and recess, then divide up for four hours each day to learn their math, science, reading and social studies.
But first, Garneau and Gamble need the parents’ approval. That’s where David Chadwell, South Carolina’s coordinator of single gender education, comes in. He doesn’t argue the politics of the issue. He emphasizes the science “These (learning) differences are tendencies, not absolutes. That is important,” he tells the group. “However, we can teach boys and girls based on what we now know because of medical technology.” Just as he’s explained to hundreds of parents and teachers across the state, Chadwell patiently walks the Manning crowd through how boys and girls perceive the world. “They see differently. Literally,” he begins. Male and female eyes are not organized in the same way, he explains. The composition of the male eye makes it attuned to motion and direction. “Boys interpret the world as objects moving through space,” he says.
“The teacher should move around the room constantly and be that object.” The male eye is also drawn to cooler colors like silver, blue, black, grey, and brown. It’s no accident boys tend to create pictures of moving objects like spaceships, cars, and trucks in dark colors instead of drawing the happy colorful family, like girls in their class. The female eye, on the other hand, is drawn to textures and colors. It’s also oriented toward warmer colors—reds, yellow, oranges—and visuals with more details, like faces. To engage girls, Chadwell says, the teacher doesn’t need to move as much, if at all. Girls work well in circles, facing each other. Using descriptive phrases and lots of color in overhead presentations or on the chalkboard gets their attention. Parents tilt their heads, curious to hear more.
Boys and girls also hear differently. “When someone speaks in a loud tone, girls interpret it as yelling,” Chadwell says. “They think you’re mad and can shut down.” Girls have a more finely tuned aural structure; they can hear higher frequencies than boys and are more sensitive to sounds. He advises girls’ teachers to watch the tone of their voices. Boys’ teachers should sound matter of fact, even excited. Chadwell’s voice sounds much more forceful as he explains. Chadwell continues. A boy’s autonomic nervous system causes them to be more alert when they’re standing, moving, and the room temperature is around 69 degrees. Stress in boys, he says, tends to increase blood flow to their brains, a process that helps them stay focused.
This won’t work for girls, who are more focused seated in a warmer room around 75 degrees. Girls also respond to stress differently. When exposed to threat and confrontation, blood goes to their guts, leaving them feeling nervous or anxious. “Boys will rise to a risk and tend to overestimate their abilities,” he says. Teachers can help them by getting them to be more realistic about results,” he says. “Girls at this age shy away from risk, which is exactly why lots of girls’ programs began in the private sector. Teachers can help them learn to take risks in an atmosphere where they feel confident about doing so.” It’s an aha! moment for many of the parents, who seem to understand. These differences can be accommodated in the classroom, Chadwell adds. “Single gender programs are about maximizing the learning.” Mar. 5, 2008 — Although researchers have long agreed that girls have superior language abilities than boys, until now no one has clearly provided a biological basis that may account for their differences.
For the first time — and in unambiguous findings — researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Haifa show both that areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks. “Our findings — which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls — could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single sex classrooms,” said Douglas D. Burman, research associate in Northwestern’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers measured brain activity in 31 boys and in 31 girls aged 9 to 15 as they performed spelling and writing language tasks. The tasks were delivered in two sensory modalities — visual and auditory. When visually presented, the children read certain words without hearing them. Presented in an auditory mode, they heard words aloud but did not see them. Using a complex statistical model, the researchers accounted for differences associated with age, gender, type of linguistic judgment, performance accuracy and the method — written or spoken — in which words were presented. The researchers found that girls still showed significantly greater activation in language areas of the brain than boys. The information in the tasks got through to girls’ language areas of the brain — areas associated with abstract thinking through language. And their performance accuracy correlated with the degree of activation in some of these language areas. To their astonishment, however, this was not at all the case for boys.
In boys, accurate performance depended — when reading words — on how hard visual areas of the brain worked. In hearing words, boys’ performance depended on how hard auditory areas of the brain worked. If that pattern extends to language processing that occurs in the classroom, it could inform teaching and testing methods. Given boys’ sensory approach, boys might be more effectively evaluated on knowledge gained from lectures via oral tests and on knowledge gained by reading via written tests. For girls, whose language processing appears more abstract in approach, these different testing methods would appear unnecessary. “One possibility is that boys have some kind of bottleneck in their sensory processes that can hold up visual or auditory information and keep it from being fed into the language areas of the brain,” Burman said. This could result simply from girls developing faster than boys, in which case the differences between the sexes might disappear by adulthood. Or, an alternative explanation is that boys create visual and auditory associations such that meanings associated with a word are brought to mind simply from seeing or hearing the word. While the second explanation puts males at a disadvantage in more abstract language function, those kinds of sensory associations may have provided an evolutionary advantage for primitive men whose survival required them to quickly recognize danger-associated sights and sounds.
If the pattern of females relying on an abstract language network and of males relying on sensory areas of the brain extends into adulthood — a still unresolved question — it could explain why women often provide more context and abstract representation than men. Ask a woman for directions and you may hear something like: “Turn left on Main Street, go one block past the drug store, and then turn right, where there’s a flower shop on one corner and a cafe across the street.” Such information-laden directions may be helpful for women because all information is relevant to the abstract concept of where to turn; however, men may require only one cue and be distracted by additional information. Boy and girl babies differ from the time they are in the crib.
Richard Restak studied these differences in babies from birth to twelve months and published his findings in the now classic book The Brain: The Last Frontier (Grand Central Publishing, 1988). He found that boy babies demonstrate early superiority in visual acuity and possess better spatial abilities in dealing with three-dimensional space. Boy babies also perform better in gross motor body movements. He found girl babies to be more sensitive to sounds (especially their mother’s voice) and more attuned to the social contexts of situations (faces, speech patterns and tones of voice). Girl babies speak sooner and develop larger vocabularies. Inborn Learning Styles
Dr. Rita Dunn, Director of the Center for Study of Learning and Teaching Styles at St. John’s University in New York, and Dr. Kenneth Dunn of Queens College, have spent nearly 25 years in the study of learning styles. They identify the most common learning styles as Auditory, Visual and Tactile. From their studies, the Dunns have observed that learning styles are inborn and run in families, and can be observed as early as the first year of life. Of the children I have evaluated in my own practice, over 80 percent demonstrates a learning style that is either identical to that of one parent or a blend of both parents’ styles. Ten percent demonstrate the learning style of a close relative, such as a grandparent or uncle. Listeners, Lookers and Movers
Listeners, Lookers and Movers are the terms I use for Auditory, Visual and Tactilelearners, respectively. Listeners are attuned to sounds and words. They talk early, have large vocabularies and learn to read with ease. From the first year of life,Lookers are drawn to color, shape and motion. They display excellent eye-hand coordination, and can be expected to excel at math and computers. As babies,Movers often crawl, stand and walk ahead of schedule. They are well-coordinated and confident in their bodies, but their affinity for moving poses problems for them in structured classroom settings. Male vs. Female Learning Styles
While external circumstances can have an impact on a child’s preferred learning style, some generalizations are possible. Girls tend to be auditory learners, more attuned to sounds, and as a result talk earlier than boys. From the time they begin formal schooling, girls excel in auditory subjects, such as reading, which require the ability to break words into individual sound units, and then blend them back into a whole. As auditory learners, they perform well in classroom settings that demand attention to teacher instructions. As adults, they often lean toward careers in communications. Male broadcasters, courtroom attorneys and speech-language pathologists prove that there are exceptions to this rule. Beginning at birth, boys tend to be visually alert and take a whole body stance to learning. As visual learners, boys tend to excel in visual subjects, such as spelling and math. Spelling requires accurate visual recall of the patterns of words, and success in math hinges on the ability to mentally visualize and manipulate quantities. As adults, males tend to favor visually precise fields, or favor fields where they can be physically active. However, female airline pilots, accountants and landscape designers prove exceptions to this rule. Learning and Teaching Strategies
Left to their own devices, children, over time, tend to settle into a preferred way of learning to the point of screening out less favored types of information. Whenever a child gets set in a particular way of learning and begins to screen out auditory, visual or tactile information, he or she is at risk of being labeled learning disabled. Children do not “outgrow” their preferences for learning in a particular way. In fact, without help, as they progress through the grades, they tend to become more set in their learning style ways. Children can, however, become more flexible in their approach to learning when adults encourage them as early as possible to welcome auditory, visual and tactile information.