Wednesday, July 21, 2010
What sex is your brain?
As a child growing up in the 1960s I had a pretty traditional upbringing. I wore skirts and dresses and played with dolls. My brothers wore trousers and played with cars and train sets. All of us went to single-sex secondary schools. During the time I’ve been a teacher I’ve heard over and over again that boys do better than girls in science and maths. This wasn’t an issue when I was at school, as there were only girls so we were all expected to do well in those subjects. Looking back I would estimate that there were as many girls who were interested in and who chose to study science subjects as there were who chose to study languages and arts. Of course some subjects were not offered at all at my school: woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing and so on. In the country as a whole, however, I would guess that in the 1960s and 1970s boys did better than girls and probably went to university in greater numbers.
I started teaching in the early 1980s – the schools I worked in were all mixed and girls and boys did all subjects together (I remember, for example, the boys doing needlework, sewing some amazing embroidery onto their denim jackets). At the time I was full of lofty ideas and would have laughed at anyone who said boys did better than girls in the sciences – I would probably have argued that boys and girls had the same opportunities and would do equally well. My actual experience, however, was that the girls tended to do better in ALL subjects (though I didn’t actually teach either science or maths at that stage). I put this down to the fact that the boys tended to be more inattentive and restless than the girls, and the girls tended to be more conscientious, to concentrate and get on with the tasks. I sometimes also wondered, especially after I started teaching technology, if the girls did better because I was a woman and was acting as a positive role model for them.
More recently it seems that “girls are the new boys” as one UK newspaper put it. There is a gap between the achievement of girls and boys in most Western countries. Boys are more likely to drop out of school than girls, and next year it is predicted that 60% of students studying for degrees will be women. So we are back to the age-old question: are the brains of boys and girls different and is it nature rather than nurture that accounts for these differences?
Brain research has shown that the male brain is more asymmetric than the female brain and that it is more specialized. Studies of stroke victims show that females seem to use both hemispheres of their brains for language, whereas males use the left more. Other studies have shown differences in brain development – areas of the brain that are involved in language and fine motor skills mature earlier in female brains, whereas spatial memory matures earlier in male brains.
Girls have often been described as having “face to face” friendships – they talk together, share personal details and so on as their language skills are more highly developed. Boys, whose early development is more spatial, have been described as having “shoulder to shoulder” friendships – they are more likely to be involved in sports or playing games rather than engrossed in conversation. Clearly these differences in the brain make it easier for girls to sit still and concentrate in class, especially when the activities involve a lot of listening or language.
More studies have shown that the human eye and ear varies between males and females too. Boys are more sensitive to movement, girls are more sensitive to colour and texture. This could explain why girls find it easier to include lots of visual details in their writing. Girls also have more sensitive hearing than boys which could be why boys are louder and why girls appear more distracted by noise in the classroom.
Boys and girls react differently to competition. This could be because there is more oxytocin in girls’ brains – this has been called “the bonding chemical”. With less oxytocin in boys’ brains they are more likely to be risk-takers, impulsive and aggressive and more competitive.
Looking at all the medical evidence, therefore, it would seem that nature is more important than nurture in determining success at school – but this is probably because of the way schools are set up and the way classes are managed making them more friendly to the female brain. Currently, with more than 100 identified structural and chemical differences between the male and female brain, it would seem girls have a learning advantage in schools. However as teachers we have a responsibility to make our classes more “boy-friendly” and to come up with different activities that help boys to focus and concentrate, as well as different assignments that will enable them to show what they know.
(Final thought: I’ve just watched University Challenge, Oxford –v- Cambridge, and out of the 8 contestants 7 of them were young men. Does this disprove my idea that girls do better than boys at all levels of education I wonder, or is it a reflection on boys being more competitive?)
Photo Credit: Their World by RossWebsdale