Learning and Gender

Learning and Gender

Presented by The American School Board Journal; (National School Boards Association.) This article was co-written by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, authors of The Minds of Boys. Stevens is also head of the Gurian Institute.

On the day your district administrators look at test scores, grades, and discipline referrals with gender in mind, some stunning patterns quickly will emerge.

Learning and Gender

Presented by The American School Board Journal; (National School Boards Association.) This article was co-written by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, authors of The Minds of Boys. Stevens is also head of the Gurian Institute.

On the day your district administrators look at test scores, grades, and discipline referrals with gender in mind, some stunning patterns quickly will emerge.

Girls, they might find, are behind boys in elementary school math or science scores. They’ll find high school girls statistically behind boys in SAT scores. They might find, upon deeper review, that some girls have learning disabilities that are going undiagnosed.

Boys, they’ll probably notice, make up 80 to 90 percent of the district’s discipline referrals, 70 percent of learning disabled children, and at least two-thirds of the children on behavioral medication. They’ll probably find that boys earn two-thirds of the Ds and Fs in the district, but less than half the As. On statewide standardized test scores, they’ll probably notice boys behind girls in general. They may be shocked to see how far behind the boys are in literacy skills; nationally, the average is a year and a half.

The moment an administrator sees the disparity of achievement between boys and girls can be liberating. Caring about children’s education can now include caring about boys and girls specifically. New training programs and resources for teachers and school districts are opening cash-strapped school boards’ eyes, not just to issues girls and boys face but also to ways of addressing gender differences in test scores, discipline referrals, and grades.

In the Edina School District, outside Minneapolis, Superintendent Ken Dragseth and district staff implemented a gender initiative that has helped close achievement gaps and improve overall education for students. In 2002, Dragseth and his staff analyzed district achievement data. They found that girls were doing much better than boys on most academic indicators, showing that they needed to address this achievement gap. They discovered areas of need for girls as well.

Edina officials decided to work on gaining greater knowledge on how boys and girls learn differently. Over the last three years, the district has seen qualitative and quantitative improvement in student performance.

Dragseth says that the gender-specific techniques and gender-friendly instructional theory he and his staff learned at the Gurian Institute helped the district significantly improve student achievement. For example, he says, they have seen higher seventh- and 10th-grade state reading and math mean scores for both boys and girls.

“We have also found that teacher- and parent-heightened awareness of gender differences in learning styles and appropriate strategies has been well received by students themselves,” he says.

Brain research

Gender training and resources used by Edina and other districts rely on information gained from PET, MRI, and other brain scans. This brain-based approach to gender was conceived in the early 1990s when it became clear that teachers were leaving college, graduate school, and teacher certification programs without training in how boys and girls learn differently. Educational culture was struggling to serve the needs of children — the needs of girls were most publicly discussed in the early 1990s — without complete knowledge of the children themselves.

When I wrote The Wonder of Boys in 1996, I hoped to bring a brain-based approach to gender issues into a wider public dialogue. In 1998, I joined the Missouri Center for Safe Schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in developing a two-year program to academically test the links among brain science, gender, and teacher education.

In six school districts in Missouri, teachers and staff integrated information from various fields and technologies and developed a number of strategies for teaching boys and girls. Gender disparities in achievement began to disappear in these districts. After one year, the pilot elementary school in the St. Joseph School District finished among the top five in the district after testing at the bottom previously. Discipline referrals diminished as well. In Kansas City’s Hickman Mills School District, discipline referrals were cut by 35 percent within six months.

In the five years following the Missouri pilot program, more than 20,000 teachers in 800 schools and districts have received training in how boys and girls learn differently. More and more teachers are using this knowledge in the classroom. Increasingly, universities and teacher certification programs are training young teachers in the learning differences between boys and girls.

Different learning styles

As with so many things of value in life, a teacher’s innovations on behalf of children begins with an epiphany. A fourth- grade teacher recently told me, “When I saw the brain scans and thought about my class, I just went ‘aha.’ So much made sense now. The boys and their fidgeting; the girls and their chatting; the girls organizing their binders colorfully; the boys tapping their pencils; the girls writing more words in their essays than the boys; even the way the boys end up in the principal’s office so much more frequently than the girls. We were all told long ago that every child should be taught as an individual, so gender didn’t matter — but it really matters! Knowing about it has completely changed the way I teach, and the success my students are having.”

On your way home this afternoon, stop by your local elementary school and see some of these differences for yourself. Walk down the hallway and find a classroom in which the teacher displays students’ written work. Stand for a moment and look at the stories.

With all exceptions noted, you will probably find that the girls on average write:

  • More words than the boys,
  • Include more complex sensory details like color and texture, and
  • Add more emotive and feeling details (“Judy said she liked him” “Timmy frowned”).
  • If you could look with X-ray glasses into the brains of the boys and girls who wrote those stories, you would see:
  • More blood flow in the verbal centers (in the cerebral cortex) of the girls’ brains;
  • More neural connections between the verbal centers and emotive centers in the limbic systems of the girls’ brains; and
  • More blood flow in sensorial centers (for instance in the occipital lobe), with more linkage between those centers and the verbal centers in the girls’ brains.

A visual link to learning

My example of the differences in boys and girls writing has a visual link. The female visual system (optical and neural) relies more greatly than the male on P cells. These are cells that connect color variety and other sensory activity to upper brain functioning. Boys rely more on M cells, which make spatial activity and graphic clues more quickly accessible.

This difference is linked significantly to a gender-different writing process for boys and girls. Boys tend to rely more on pictures and moving objects for word connections than girls. Girls tend to use more words that describe color and other fine, sensory information. Not surprisingly, gender gaps in writing are often “detail” gaps.

Girls use more sensorial detail than boys, receiving better grades in the process. However, when elementary school teachers let boys draw picture panels (with colored pens) during the brainstorming part of story or essay writing, the boys often graphically lay out what their story will be about. After that, they actually write their “word brainstorming” because they can refer to a graphic/spatial tool that stimulates their brains to greater success in writing.

Watch a fourth-grade classroom led by a teacher untrained in male/female brain differences. You’ll probably see the teacher tell students to “take an hour to write your brainstorming for your paper.” Five to 10 of the boys in a classroom of 30 kids will stare at the blank page.

But when teachers are trained in male/female brain differences, they tell students to draw first and write later. Students who need that strategy will end up writing much more detailed, organized, and just better papers.

The rest state and discipline problems

Another area where you’ll see gender differences is classroom behavior. Boys tend to fidget when they are bored. In a boy’s brain, less of the “calming chemical,” serotonin, moves through the pre-frontal cortex (the executive decision-maker in the brain). Boys thus are more likely to fidget, distract themselves and others, and become the objects of the teacher’s reprimands.

Furthermore, the male brain naturally goes into a rest state many times per day and is not engaged in learning. Thus the boy “zones out,” “drifts off,” or “disappears from the lesson.”

Sometimes he begins to tap his pencil loudly or pull the hair of the kid in front of him. He’s not trying to cause trouble; in fact, he may be trying to wake up and avoid the rest state. Girls’ brains do not go to this severe rest state; their cerebral cortices are always “on.” They more rarely need to tap, fidget, or talk out of turn in order to stay focused.

Teachers can learn how to organize classrooms so that any boys (and girls) who need it can physically move while they are learning and keep their brains engaged. The rest state and boredom issues begin to dissolve. Discipline referrals decrease exponentially.

Brains on math

Both boys and girls can do math and science, of course, but their brains perform these tasks differently. Girls fall behind boys in complex math skills when their lesson plans rely solely or mainly on abstract formulations specified in symbols on the blackboard.

However, when words, essay components, and active group work are added to the toolbox of teacher strategies, girls reach a parity of performance. Brain-based innovations to help girls in math and science over the last decade have brought more verbal elements into math and science teaching and testing: more words, more word-to-formula connections, and more essay answers in math tests.

The results in both math and science achievement have been stunning, with girls closing the math/science gap in many school districts.

Different reactions to competition

Because of neural and chemical differences in levels and processing of oxytocin, dopamine, testosterone, and estrogen, boys typically need to do some learning through competition. Girls, of course, are competitive too, but in a given day, they will spend less time in competitive learning and less time relating successfully to one another through “aggression-love” — the playful hitting and dissing by which boys show love.

The current emphasis on cooperative learning is a good thing, and the basis of a diversity-oriented educational culture. However, because they are not schooled in the nature of gender in the brain, teachers generally have deleted competitive learning, and thus de-emphasized a natural learning tool for many boys. We’ve also robbed girls of practice in the reality of human competitiveness.

When teachers receive training on how competitive learning can be integrated into classrooms (without chaos ensuing) they actually come to enjoy seeing both boys and girls challenge one another to learn better. Many girls who avoided leadership before now step forward to lead.

Learning to their potential

Our children are children, of course — but they are also girls and boys. This is something we all know as parents. When a school board makes the decision to focus on how the girls and boys are doing, all children gain. Students learn more, teachers are more productive, test scores and behavior improve, and parents and the community are happier.

A school board member in North Carolina told me, “Ten years ago, it was almost scary to talk about hard-wired gender differences. There were a lot of Title IX concerns, fears of reprisal. Now it’s not scary, the brain research has caught up, and now it’s so necessary. In fact, it just feels right.”

It does indeed feel right to help boys and girls learn to their potential. Ten years ago, our girls were behind our boys in math and science; now, we see that our boys are far behind our girls in literacy. Neither of these gaps need exist anymore, as we engage in best practices on behalf of both boys and girls.

Michael Gurian, co-founder of the Gurian Institute, is author of 25 books, including The Minds of Boys (with Kathy Stevens), The Wonder of Girls, and Boys and Girls Learn Differently (with Patricia Henley and Terry Trueman).

Training staff produces results

It’s all well and good to have a theory, but does it work in the classroom? This is the question the Gurian Institute has been answering for a decade. Our data shows that training district staff and teachers in how boys and girls learn differently has a profound and positive effect on grades, standardized test scores, discipline referrals, and school culture.

Districts have used gender information and strategies to affect not only their coed classrooms, but also to experiment with single-gender classrooms. These experiments usually take place in core classes (language arts, math, and science). Woodward Avenue Elementary School in DeLand, Fla., outside Orlando, is an example of this dual strategy.

Woodward principal JoAnne Rodkey and members of the education department at Stetson University in DeLand have collected assessment data from single-gender and mixed classes at kindergarten, second, and fourth grades. Data showed very positive results in all the grades.

For example, in kindergarten the percentage of students scoring at grade level or above on DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) went from 40 percent in the all-boys class in the first assessment to 84 percent after the new strategies were in place. The girls’ classes went from 47 percent to 75 percent. In the coed classes, scores rose from 36 percent to 70 percent. Similar data in second and fourth grade indicates gains in both mixed and single-gender classes.

Some districts form partnerships with their state departments of education to get training on gender issues. In Alabama, for instance, Director of Programs Carol Crawford initiated statewide training in 2002 for administrators and school principals. Individual districts and boards then took Gurian Institute resources and methods into individual schools. Within six months, schools began reporting increased test scores and grades for both boys and girls, as well as decreased discipline referrals.

In the summer of 2004, Principal Jackie Dye of Rudd Middle School in Pinson, Ala., noted, “Following the ‘boys and girls learn differently’ training, we immediately saw teachers reporting decreased disciplinary referrals and improved academic performance for both our boys and the girls.”

Throughout the grade levels, the theory and practice surrounding the phrase “boys and girls learn differently” can alter the academic and social environment of a district, school, and classroom.
This article was co-written by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, authors of The Minds of Boys. Stevens is also head of the Gurian Institute.
Copyright © 2006, National School Boards Association. American School Board Journal is an editorially independent publication of the National School Boards Association. Opinions expressed by this magazine or any of its authors do not necessarily reflect positions of the National School Boards Association. Within the parameters of fair use, this article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or educational use, provided this copyright notice appears on each copy. This article may not be otherwise, linked, transmitted, or reproduced in print or electronic form without the consent of the Publisher. For more information, call (703) 838-6739.



Michael Gurian
Michael Gurian

Michael Gurian is a family therapist, child advocate, and the New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty-five books, including The Minds of Boys, Boys and Girls Learn Differently! and The Wonder of Girls. Over the last twenty years, he has advocated relentlessly for boy-friendly research in the public dialogue. The Gurian Institute has provided teacher effectiveness training to over fifty thousand teachers in two thousands schools and districts. gurianinstitute.com



Kathy Stevens
Kathy Stevens

Kathy Stevens, MPA, Executive Director of the Gurian Institute, is an international presenter/co-author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life and other education titles. Kathy trains professionals/parents in nature-based theory, helping them adapt curriculum and programs to help boys and girls succeed. She has designed and administered programs in education, domestic violence, juvenile corrections, teen pregnancy prevention, diversity and women’s issues.