Monday, 30 September 2013

Boys and Girls - different gender, different brains, different learners?

The age-old hot topic of single sex education vs mixed gender schools is one which is often hotly debated amongst parents and professionals alike. Is there a winner? Depends on how much you understand about the two genders and how much you are prepared to modify your teaching methods if you are standing in front of a class, trying to keep everyone engaged and learning!

Keeping in mind that whilst there are obviously differences between the genders, there are also differences within the genders......not everyone is the same! However, some of the broad differences between the genders are identified quite early. The National Centre for Infants, Toddlers and Families (Washington, DC) summarised some of these early developmental indicators:
  • Girls are slightly more advanced in vision, hearing, memory, smell and touch
  • Girl babies tend to respond more to human voices or faces, and they generally lead boys in the emergence of fine motor and language skills
  • By age three, boys tend to outperform girls in visual spatial tasks - jigsaw puzzles, navigation/direction, and certain types of hand-eye co-ordination
  • By adolescence, the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibres that divides the cerebrum into right and left hemispheres) is 25% larger in the female brain. This allows for more signals to be sent across both hemispheres....hence the ability of girls to be better at multi-tasking.
So, how do these general characteristics affect how boys and girls learn? Research suggests that teachers keep some of these key points in mind to increase student engagement....for both boys and girls:

  • Differentiate the learning activities - more fact and action, less description and sensory details
  • Learning needs to be relevant - give it a real context
  • Break the learning down into 'chunks'- segmented learning with a specific purpose or outcome makes better sense to boys
  • Sequence the activities and integrate short-term goals for success - keep them interested!
  • Explicit teaching - reduce the talk!
  • Use problem-based learning - start the work with a question; brainstorm decisions/choices; give 'direction' to the learning
  • Time limits on task completion - if they have a specific goal, they are more likely to remain 'switched on'
  • Provide challenge in learning - take safe risks
  • Increase group work opportunities
  • Introduce more concrete materials and opportunities to improve spatial awareness
  • Include tasks which enhance gross motor skills
  • Connect Science and Maths to 'real world' concepts
  • Praise their work, rather than just expecting them to achieve...because they are 'working quietly'!
For both boys and girls, WALT, WILF and TIB are great strategies to increase student engagement.

WALT - 'We Are Learning To...' gives direction to the learning
WILF - 'What I'm Looking For...' establishes teacher expectations for the learning
TIB - 'This Is Because...' gives context to the learning

This is such a fascinating topic and I have only just scratched the surface. A chapter is devoted to more of the differences between girls and boys in my book, The Transition Tightrope. If you want a real, in-depth coverage of this topic, Dr Leonard Sax is something of a guru in this area. His book, Why Gender Matters, is a great read.

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

About Author:

Angie Wilcock is a highly regarded expert and speaker on transitions in education. She works with teachers, parents and students across Australia.

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