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  • Writer's pictureYollanda Zhang

The Impact of Gender in Learning

If there is one true thing about learning, it’s that no two people are exactly the same in terms of how they process information. There are, however, certain differences in learning styles that are characterized by specific factors, including gender.

I recently finished “Why Gender Matters, Second Edition: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences” by Dr. Leonard Sax, MD PhD, and encourage parents and teachers alike to read it, or listen to it on audiobook. There was a lot of valuable information included, including the review of best practices for teaching each gender.

The information I’ve absorbed prompted me to make changes to the upcoming team training so that our teachers at Panda Mandarin are more aware of how gender differences can impact learning outcomes.

In case you can’t get to reading it right away, here are some of the salient points Dr. Sax makes, and some examples to show you the impact of gender on learning.

Some learning differences, based on gender, are innate

There are physiological differences, like vision and hearing, that can make a difference in learning, between boys and girls. One example specific to boys is that they need louder inputs than girls. If they sit further away from their teachers, it may be difficult for them to hear the instructions and they are more likely to be disengaged and act out. A soft spoken teacher might be at a specific disadvantage when teaching boys.

Part of the reason for these innate differences is that brain development follows a different track for boys, as compared to girls. These differences grow less with age, but in younger children, can be very obvious. While a girl will reach brain maturity around the age of 22, a boy might not reach it until age 30. The result is that the type of learning that is appropriate, from a developmental perspective, for a 12 year old girl can be quite different from what is appropriate for a 12 year old boy.

“How long can you sit still, be quiet, and pay attention? We find no difference on that parameter comparing a 40-year-old woman with a 40-year-old man. But when we compare a 6-year-old girl with a 6-year-old boy, we find that the average 6-year-old boy can sit still, be quiet, and pay attention for only about half as long as the average 6-year-old girl.” (Source)

Some learning differences are a question of different processing styles

This is best understood through an example of how most girls learn STEM concepts much better from stories and boys may lose interest if too many stories are introduced without facts.

There is an innate physiological component in this too. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory storage, develops earlier in girls. Result? Girls typically have stronger abilities in concepts, vocabulary and writing. Boys’ brains have a larger part of their cerebral cortex dedicated to spatial functioning. Result? Boys learn better with pictures, rather than just words

So if we continue with this notion and focus in on best practices for teaching math, according to Dr. Sax:

“For girls, begin with concrete, then move to abstract. For boys: Start with numbers for the sake of numbers. For example, in teaching how to solve equations in multiple variables, the “boy-friendly” approach might be to ask: If x + 2y = 90, and 2x + y = 60, solve for x and y. The “girl-friendly” approach might be to ask: If a blouse and two sweaters cost $90, and a sweater and two blouses cost $0, how much does one blouse cost and how much does one sweater cost? The “boy-friendly” approach is to begin with the equations, then move to the word problem. The “girl-friendly” approach is to begin with the word problem, then move to the equations.”

Of course, the perspectives presented in Dr. Sax’s book are just that: perspectives. While most are supported by research studies, it’s always important to regard students as individuals, not solely based on a gender label, if for no other reason than the fact that there will always be exceptions.

How to teach the same subject to boys and girls effectively

As teachers and parents, we need not be concerned as much with whether the differences in learning are based on nature or nurture, so long as we recognize the differences. Neither gender is better or worse at any subject but not recognizing their different learning styles could inadvertently reinforce socially constructed gender stereotypes, such as ‘girls aren’t good at math’ or ‘boys aren’t good at art’.

In Dr. Sax’s own words:

“The key is to understand the differences, and offer choices without labeling. For example, in American history, you might offer students a choice of either writing an essay on “How would it feel if you were. . .” versus “Describe and evaluate the choices available to Col. Joshua Chamberlain after the fourth assault by the 15th Alabama at Little Round Top.” Some girls may choose to write about Col. Chamberlain; some boys may choose to write about their feelings. That’s great. Girls and boys can both be enthusiastic about history, in the coed classroom, if you understand these differences.
Ironically, the result of ignoring gender – pretending gender doesn’t matter, and assuming that one instructional style works equally well for both girls and boys – disadvantages both girls and boys. Both girls and boys may decide that history is stupid and boring.”

Gender differences in learning are not universal. An issue like how to approach a history lesson and essay assignment wouldn’t necessarily apply to ALL children in the same way. It’s a generalization, to be sure, but understanding some of these differences gives teachers and parents a stronger foundation as to why some learning styles might be more effective than others. It’s always helpful to have more tools in our parenting-toolbox and be able to better advocate for our children.


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