concept 8

Gender in education

There is growing recognition that there are psychological differences between the genders that affect the way in which males and females think, communicate and behave. These differences manifest themselves in the playground, at school, at home and at work.

Boys tend to play different kinds of games from girls and they relate to each other differently. Boys are more hierarchical, whilst girls are more collaborative. Girls tend to be better at articulating their feelings, but boys tend to answer in class more frequently.

The realisation that boys and girls think and learn differently has come from a range of sources, including research on the brain. Research into gender differences allows one to contrast some of the typical classroom characteristics displayed by boys and girls.

  • Girls tend to be able to plan and organise their work more effectively than boys. They are also more able to apply their skills to different learning contexts.
  • Boys interrupt more frequently and answer more often, even when they do not know the answer. Girls talk less in class and in groups, but they are more likely to ask for help.
  • Boys tend to over-estimate their academic abilities. Girls generally underestimate their abilities and work harder to compensate.
  • Boys tend to act first and think later. Girls like to think before they act and they are slower at becoming involved in practical activities than boys.
  • Girls are prepared to be more open about their aspirations than boys.

To some extent, gender differences are culturally determined. There is significant research, which shows that parents tend to behave differently in relation to boys and girls. By the time children are of school age, imitation becomes very important, peer and media influences are stronger and children have become socialised into gender roles that affect their mindsets, behaviours and interests.

Recent research, however, has shown that some of these basic gender differences are present so early on in life that cultural differences cannot be the only cause. A recent study by Baron-Cohen into the reaction of newly born babies to stimuli such as the human face and mechanical mobiles, suggests that differences in the brain may be more hard-wired that previously thought, and not attributable simply to differences in parenting. A growing body of evidence suggests that we have underestimated the importance of nature in gender differences.

Recent brain research also suggests that there are two principal physical differences between male and female brains and also in the way men and women use their brains.

Firstly, the corpus callosum, which links the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is relatively larger in women than in men. Secondly, the left side of the cortex grows more slowly in boys than in girls. This may explain why boys tend to develop formal language and communication skills later than girls and find it less easy to work collaboratively.

Imaging studies further show that men and women tend to use their brains differently. When performing complex tasks, females have a tendency to bring both sides of their brain to bear on the problem, whereas males use only the side most obviously suited for the task.

Neurologists are broadly in agreement that brain development may explain key differences in early development of boys and girls and, therefore, it can be counterproductive to push formal learning too early with boys. In all of us, the right brain tends to develop faster than the left brain, but there is some evidence to suggest that in boys, the left brain tends to develop more slowly than in girls.

If boys and girls do learn and develop differently and have different needs, then there is a strong case for treating them differently in schools, whilst avoiding the dangers of stereotyping. Whilst all children enjoy and need praise and recognition, boys tend to like recognition for what they have achieved, whereas girls tend to set more store on appreciation for who they are as a person.

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