Teaching Boys vs. Girls

1379584_394909017304165_1145266801_nWhen I was a kid, there was this thing that marked a tangible difference between boys and girls. Cooties. No one was quite sure what they were, but they were there, and they were a real danger. Boys had Boy Cooties, and girls had Girl Cooties.  Boys and girls were not the same, and needed to be separate at all cost, for fear of contamination. I’m not sure if cooties still live in the playground consciousness, but I do know that girls and boys are different. No, not politically, or anything like that. There’s no difference in the quality of female or male work, nor is there any prescribed difference in male and female intelligence. This is the 21st century after all. But, this past week, finding myself, as many of our instructors do, in classes predominantly of one sex or the other, I found myself wondering: is there a difference in the way boys and girls learn?

A lot of research has gone into this question in recent years. Some studies are acutely aware of the potential stigma surrounding this question. It useful then to echo their warnings in this blog post: these are generalizations. They are trends. And yet they are scientific. They are based on brain patterns and matter. This is not to say that one gender is better than the other, but rather that boys and girls will take in the same information to the same degree, but in completely different ways. So enough with the disclaimers, let’s get into what the studies say.


1378674_394908743970859_2110911731_nBoys Brains

Boys tend to be more kinaesthetic. They want to move (not a surprise to parents and educators everywhere!), and are engaged by movement. This is because they have more areas in the brain dedicated to spatial-mechanical functioning. This helps them in subjects such as math, or in other activities that require gross motor skills.

Further, boy’s brains are structured for compartmentalized learning — meaning that they tend to focus more on one thing when they learn, and will focus on it longer. Though this intense focus means they sometimes have difficultly multitasking or transitioning from one subject to the next. Male brains are actually set to renew or reboot. So sometimes you’ll see a boy sleeping on a desk, or ‘zoned out’, or fidgeting to keep themselves alert. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want to pay attention, but rather, they need, what is called a rest state, to keep their brains learning.

Keeping boys alert is as simple as getting them up and moving. Their autonomic nervous system causes them to be more alert when they’re standing, moving, and when the room temperature is around 20 degrees.

Finally, boys tend to respond or perform better under a deadline or in typically stressful situations. Because of the way boys brains work, the stress actually fuels their focus!


IMG_3010-1024x682Girls Brains

Girls are multitaskers. They have a large corpus callosum (the connecting bundle of tissues between brain hemispheres). This allows more “cross talk” between hemispheres in the female brain and helps girls  jump from one topic to the next easily. In general, girls have great memory storage, listening skills and sense of detail. This is due to their neural connectors in their temporal lobes, which are the centers of visual memory, sensory input and language comprehension.  This means girls will be more sensitive to tones of voice and  respond best to language instructions.

Girls learn best in a  warmer area than boys, about 23 degrees. Girls also tend to be less impulsive, because the prefrontal cortex—which controls social behaviour and decision making — is more developed in girls at a younger age.

Finally, girls develop early in the fine motor skills department—so while they typically are not as developed in spatial-mechanical functioning, they are good at detailed work with their fingers.


The Danger of Teaching to Gender

As a clever article from the Guardian recently suggested, we cannot divide the class—girls on one side, boys on the other—with temperature differences and sound proof walls. Of course, as many articles have suggested, these are generalizations. As educators, we’ve all met boys and girls who defy these norms. Further, these are brain tendencies—like any muscle in the body, the brain can be trained to perform better in certain areas; a female student can train her spatial kinaesthetic skills, boys can develop their listening skills. More than that, we must acknowledge the societal tendencies when it comes to gender, and attempt to recognize these studies on young brains as what they are: useful knowledge to any educator, but by no means hard and fast rules.

As academic and teacher Angela Josette Magon suggests, a “one-size fits all pedagogy just does not work”. But this is true beyond gender as well. Discussing this with some of our instructors and friends has produced mixed, and sometimes heated conversation. What is the danger of teaching to gender? Perhaps the point here is not that we need to teach differently—as one study pointed out, boys and girls will approach the same learning point with the same success, but use completely different parts of the brain—rather it’s about being accepting of different approaches to learning.

Many of the Explore It! instructors will teach the same class to a group of students that is predominately girls one day and boys the next. So how much does Explore It! keep gendered learning in mind? It goes beyond teaching the girls in Duct Tape Art how to make bows, and the boys, bow ties. At Explore It!, we strive to be flexible, educated, and animated instructors. We bare in mind the dangers of gendered generalizations, while still taking from these studies useful teaching approaches. In other words, we do not teach to boys or girls, but rather, to this specific boy, and that specific girl. We teach to individuals, and adapt to their specific strengths, character, personality and learning needs.