Monday, November 15, 2010

No Gender Differences in Learning

The notion that "boys and girls learn differently"—now sadly an article of faith among many educators—is largely lacking in empirical support. Neither psychologists nor neuroscientists have identified any meaningful differences between boys' and girls' mental or neural processing as they learn how to speak, read, or memorise their times tables.

Boys and girls obviously differ in their interests, but as extensive meta-analyses have shown, their differences in cognitive and emotional abilities—ranging from verbal and mathematical skill to attention span, memory, empathy, and even activity level—are far smaller than the range of such abilities among girls or boys alone.

In this light, teachers must carefully consider statements "boys are much more likely than girls to be graphic thinkers and kinesthetic learners." Indeed, this highlights a classroom in which the majority of girls opted for a visual-spatial over a written project, counter to the claim that boys' brains are more “graphically-oriented.”

The truth is that all people learn kinesthetically, including medical students, both male and female, and who need to get their hands on real human brain specimens to consolidate their understanding of neuroanatomy. Children, both male and female, are even more kinesthetic than adults, as Piaget and Montessori first taught us.

Gender differences in academic performance are an important issue, but they are not going to be resolved through the propagation of pseudoscience. It's time teachers appreciate the true, nuanced science of sex difference—that boys and girls are not from separate planets, and must be treated, first and foremost, as individuals, rather than gender stereotypes.

Lise Eliot, PhD, Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University, North Chicago, IL.

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