As  the performance gap opens up between boys and girls- is it time for a re-think on how to educate boys

Advances in neuroscience may help here


Tony Little, Eton’s Headmaster,  claimed at a recent conference  that the different sexes required different teaching methods to bring out students’ potential and that GCSEs favour girls more than boys. GCSE exams became much more verbal than the old O-levels, he said, thereby favouring girls over boys.  Boys, he believes, require a more physical and active style of learning. He said that an increased verbal element of GCSEs favoured girls over boys and that educational techniques had become skewed because of the male-dominated society of the past. In short, Little’s argument  is that, when it comes to learning, boys need to be taught in particular ways, which take account of the fact that “they are hardwired differently from girls and they need different approaches in terms of their education”.

Research submitted  to the same  conference  claimed that boys and girls benefited from different teaching techniques which could be administered either in single-sex environments or at mixed schools. It also said that boys were more likely to be labelled “disruptive or rebellious” in mixed classrooms where the presence of girls might encourage them to try and be “cool” rather than studious. This situation affected the learning experience of both girls and boys, it stated.

Concurrently it emerged that  one of the country’s biggest exam boards is developing different GCSE courses for boys and girls.  The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) said it was looking into creating a science GCSE with more coursework in it for girls, and one which gave more weighting to exam marks for boys. Studies have shown that girls perform better in coursework than boys, while boys do better in exams.  AQA said it would not prevent boys from taking the girls’ course and vice versa. The courses in English, maths and science could be available from September next year.

Dr Tony Sewell who has a particular interest in addressing  Afro-Caribbean  boys underachievement  claims that boys are being failed by schools because lessons have become too “feminised” in recent years. Dr Sewell   called for more nurturing of traditional “male” traits, such as competitiveness and leadership.

Schools focus too much on “feminine” qualities such as organisation and attentiveness, he  told an NASUWT union conference in  2008.  Sewell, a former lecturer at Leeds University, said some coursework should be replaced with final exams and there should be more emphasis on outdoor adventure in the curriculum. He also wants extra efforts to recruit more male teachers and to introduce more “excitement” to lessons.  Interestingly, new  figures show a surge in pupil numbers at single-sex prep schools in the independent sector  which cater for boys up to the age of 13.  This  trend is a reversal of the picture only a decade ago, when demand for girls’ schools was growing strongly. And  some schools   felt the need to become co-educational as demand shifted.

John Gray’s book Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars was  a best-seller for a very  good reason.  It struck a chord .Anecdotal evidence   has long suggested the case that males experience – and react to – life quite differently  to females .And the corollary of this is that  boys learn differently from girls . Neuroscience is catching up on this. Over the past decade or so, researchers have attempted to determine what, if any, natural differences exist between male and female brains when it comes to learning. Research in neuroscience has found  clear gender variation in human brain anatomy, chemical processes and function. In girls, the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres (or halves) of the brain, is generally larger than in boys. This enables more “cross talk” between the hemispheres of the brain. Boys’ brains, on the other hand, are structured to compartmentalize learning. As a result, girls are usually better than boys at multitasking and can make quick transitions between lessons and tasks (Havers, 1995). On the other hand, a boy’s ability to compartmentalize learning might result in better clarity and focus in certain situations. Studies have shown that girls tend to use the areas of the brain devoted to verbal and emotional functioning, while boys generally use the areas of the brain geared toward spatial and mechanical tasks. (Moir and Jessel, 1989; Rich, 2000).

In 2008 researchers from Northwestern University (USA) and the University of Haifa showed  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. The findings suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls —  and  they suggested that this could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single sex classrooms. 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.

The male brain needs to recharge and reorient by entering what brain scientists call a rest state. Boys may naturally drift off or “space out” during a lesson. However, they are able to stay engaged in visual or hands-on learning that involves symbols, objects, diagrams and pictures but zone out when too many words are used (Gurian, 2001).  There is also evidence that different areas of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared with most boys. So, while it’s too simplistic  to say that boys mature more slowly than girls it is probably correct to say  boys mature faster than girls in some areas,  but slower in others. Self-evidently this should be taken into account when deciding how to teach ,what to teach and when to teach.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of education at Buckingham University, is somewhat sceptical  about all this, though. He  believes  that we already know the main variables relating to exam success-these  are pupil characteristics, social background and  the quality of the  teacher. So  this leaves very little space for gender in the classroom to make any  real difference.   This has all re-opened the debate about single sex  versus co-ed  education and whether, for instance, boys should be taught separately from girls  either generally or in certain subjects.  But  a greater understanding of how the brain works, and what neuro science tells us about gender differences and the way we learn  and its implications for the  learning  environment and teaching, is  becoming the new frontier in education . As more information becomes available  Professor Smithers may have to adjust his position.

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