Teaching Girls and Boys Differently

Psychologist-Doctor Tells Why Divergences Run Deep


Boys and girls have marked physical and psychological differences and hence they have to be educated differently. This is the thesis of a book published earlier this year by psychologist and family doctor Leonard Sax.

In "Why Gender Matters" (Random House), he takes issue with the modern tendency toward gender-neutral child-rearing. According to this theory boys and girls behave differently because of the way they are educated, or because of cultural factors. Sax describes how in the mid-1990s he began to see more and more young boys arrive at his office with requests for medication, due to their supposed attention-deficit disorder.

The real problem, Sax eventually discovered, was that the second- and third-graders were being educated by teachers who did not understand the differences in how boys and girls learn. For a start, he explains, a girl's sense of hearing is more sensitive than that of boys, so the tone of voice used by a female teacher may be fine for the girls, but does not engage a boy's attention.

This experience sparked off Sax's interest in the subject of sex-based differences. His research showed that behavioral differences are not just caused by cultural factors. Research into men and women who have suffered strokes reveals that in men the left and right hemispheres of the brain are strongly compartmentalized, with the former dedicated to verbal skills and the latter to spatial functions. This division does not exist in women, who use both hemispheres of the brain for language.

And analysis of human brain tissue shows that there is a difference in its composition, at the level of the proteins. This difference is not due to hormonal changes that occur at puberty, but is something innate and is present even in children.

Sax also notes that girls and women can generally interpret facial expressions better than most boys and men. He cites research carried out at Cambridge University, showing that even young babies reveal differences in the way they pay attention to objects. Female babies are more interested in other people's faces, while male babies prefer to pay attention to moving objects.

Seeing differently

In fact, evidence exists that from the composition of the retina to the way images are processed by the brain, there are notable differences between males and females. This results in females being more aware of differences in color and texture, while males discern with greater facility location, direction and speed.

This difference is then reflected in the toys that young children prefer — dolls for girls and trucks for boys — and the type of pictures they draw, with girls using more colors and including more people in their drawings.

This has consequences when it comes to schooling, Sax explains. Given that most kindergarten teachers are women they tend to encourage their students to draw people and to use lots of colors. This can lead to discouragement among boys, whose different style of drawing is not appreciated by the teacher, leading them to conclude that "art is for girls."

Male and female differences are also evident in the way people navigate. Men are more likely to use abstract concepts such as north and south, and to refer to distances. Women, by contrast, prefer using visual landmarks. Neuroscientists have found, Sax noted, that even by the age of 5 the male brain uses a different part of the brain to navigate, the hippocampus, while the female brain relies on the cerebral cortex.


Notable differences also exist in how emotions are handled. Children are generally not capable of analyzing their emotions, because this area of their brain has not yet developed. In adolescence, emotions are increasingly dealt with by the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions.

But this change is far more pronounced in girls' brains than in those of boys. So, if at school adolescents are asked by their teachers to write or talk about their emotions this places boys at a disadvantage.

Another area with marked differences between males and females is in the willingness to accept risk. Most boys enjoy taking risks, and are also impressed by other boys who take risks. This is not the same for girls, who generally are less likely to seek out risky situations just for the sake of it. Boys are also more likely to disobey their parents when told not do something risky.

Sax explained that while boys enjoy doing risky things, they also systematically overestimate their own ability, whereas girls are likely to underestimate it. Researchers at Boston University noted that almost all drowning victims are male, for example. They concluded that a major contributing factor to this was that males consistently overestimated their swimming ability.

Boys are also more attracted to violence and conflict — for example, in their reading preferences — than girls are. And in their relations with others, boys are notably readier to fight and to respond aggressively than girls.

Friendships are also carried out differently. Girls tend to organize their friendships around spending time together, talking and going to places. Friendships among boys, however, revolve around a common interest in games and activities, with conversation and secret-sharing not holding a high priority.

Brain development

Learning methods between the sexes vary greatly too. Most girls, Sax explained, naturally tend to seek out a teacher's help, are more likely to follow instructions, and to do their homework. Boys, by contrast, will generally only consult a teacher as a last resort and are less likely to study if they find a subject uninteresting.

And when it comes to motivating students, boys respond well to stress created by confrontation or time-constrained tasks, an approach that does not give good results for girls.

Sax is careful to point out that every child is unique and, also, that not all boys or all girls are the same. At the same time, he writes, this "should not blind us to the fact that gender is one of the two great organizing principles in child development — the other principle being age."

Girls and boys, he explained, differ substantially in the speed with which their brains mature. The various regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared to boys. Therefore, rather than saying that boys develop more slowly than girls, it is more accurate to affirm that girls and boys develop at a different pace. Language skills develop earlier in girls, for example, while spatial memory matures earlier in boys.

In fact, Sax argued, these differences in cerebral capacities between the sexes are larger and more important during childhood and adolescence than the differences between adults, when both males and females have reached full maturity.

This difference, he argues, should be acknowledged by educators, and then used positively. Just trying to stop boys from fighting among themselves or playing dangerous games, for example, is insufficient. The solution is not to try and eliminate this aggression in males, but to transform it by providing constructive alternatives.

And when it comes to teaching, instead of prescribing medications to boys to treat attention problems, a better solution would be to separate the sexes and use teaching methods appropriate for each sex. In a word: letting boys be boys. ZE05070902

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