The Gender Agenda

12th February 2016

With the scientific community now claiming to prove that boys’ and girls’ brains are completely different, is the age old nature/nurture debate now obsolete? Lisa Botwright investigates.

I remember being told by an earnest sociology teacher that gender differences were purely cultural. My generation were brought up to believe that if we gave our daughters Lego and our sons Barbies, then gender differences would melt away and the world would be a more harmonious and balanced place. As a grown-up mother of two, I know now that if I give my son a Barbie to play with he will decapitate it ruthlessly and use it as a gun to shoot his sister as she builds pretty houses with Lego for her dolls. Boys and girls are different: it’s a fact. And it’s a fact now wholeheartedly endorsed by many in the scientific community as technological advances have made it possible to analyse the brain in greater depth.

The use of MRI and PET scans over the last decade have shown that there are significant differences in the way that men and women process information, and in the physical structure of our brains. The brain is a fascinating and highly complex organ, but in simple terms there are three layers: the brain stem at the bottom which connects to the spinal cord, the most primitive part of the brain where our ‘animal instinct’ dominates; the middle limbic system where emotions are processed, and the cerebral cortex divided into left and right hemispheres where our intellectual processing takes place. This is the most developed part of our brain and dictates our personality, our intelligence, our understanding of the world.

Michael Gurian (author of The Wonder of Boys, and Boys and Girls Learn Differently, invaluable reading for anyone interested in the issue of gender-related learning) puts it this way: ‘Boys often need us to give them more time than girls need, and they often need us to connect their feelings to objects in the outside world.’

Males are more prone to use of the right side of the brain and are therefore better at abstract reasoning and spatial tasks; this is why they dominate professions such as engineering and architecture. Women tend to the left side of the brain, which, amongst others things, is the side used for language. However, when boys concentrate on a task, their neuro transmissions are highly active in one area, whereas girls are far more likely to be engaging many different areas of their brain simultaneously. The reason for this is the ‘corpus callosum’: a bundle of nerves connecting the left and right brain. This is far bigger in females, and is the biological reason for the famous multi-tasking ability of women. It’s also the reason why my husband and I will always fall out when we attempt to do DIY together. I like to chat and listen to the radio as I’m painting the walls. My husband, on the other hand, is fully absorbed in the task ahead and his brain is rejecting all other stimuli as an unnecessary distraction. And there was me thinking he was just grumpy.

This has enormous implications for the way boys and girls learn as they progress through school. Take maths and science: we know that boys’ brains are attracted to the analytical and abstract aspects of these subjects since symbolic texts, graphs and diagrams all stimulate the right hand side of the brain. Girls can feel put off by the jargon and prefer to use (everyday) language to place the ideas in context. Tracy Handford, Head of Dame Bradbury’s school in Cambridge and an experienced science co-ordinator within the primary sector, says that there is a marked difference in the way boys and girls approach the subject. “I am aware that I need to give girls more opportunities to explore the subject in small groups, where they can talk amongst themselves to share hypotheses and evaluate experiments.”

In other areas, boys may well be at a disadvantage. The education system and the classroom are not male brain friendly; in fact, there is a distinct cultural bias towards girls. Most teachers are women – up to three quarters, in fact – and up to 90% in primary schools. The other problem is that boys like to move around while they learn (this has been proven to stimulate their brains) as well as physically take up more room: boys will happily spread into a girl’s space if a boy and girl share a desk. Female teachers untrained in the differences between boys and girls can often interpret boys’ habits as rude or disruptive, when in fact they are simply displaying healthy male behaviour. What might look like naughtiness may simply be a different way of learning, or processing information.

Girls’ brains develop earlier than boys, especially in the areas of language and empathy, and their brains process sensory data better, so they are better listeners, with a higher desire to please, and better equipped to communicate more successfully with their (usually female) teacher.

Former Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove has spoken publicly about this cultural bias, saying, “It’s crucial we get effective role models for the next generation. Male teachers can help provide authority figures for children who desperately need boundaries.”

Hormones also play their part in creating such distinct differences between the sexes. The female hormones estrogen and progesterone promote bonding: girls like to ‘find a best friend’ and forge links through egalitarian alliances. Boys have more spinal fluid, which causes greater stimulation in the brain stem (remember, the most instinctive area of the brain). So this, combined with fluctuating surges of testosterone, means that boys are far more competitive and driven by the urge to strive for the highest place in the pecking order.

Parents of sons will nod in recognition at Peter Smith’s account of the boys he teaches at single sex Hampton School in south-west London: “Boys are like greyhounds. They love the chase and the race, and they don’t care if the prize is a fake rabbit.” Mr Smith regularly sets timed tests to motivate his pupils. Often the ‘prize’ he offers is nothing more than a blackberry-flavoured cough sweet.

Another disadvantage for boys, at least socially, is their greater difficulty in dealing with emotion. Studies have shown how completely different areas of the brain will light up in each sex when prompted by similar upsetting triggers. Girls have a greater ability to process information more quickly and in many more areas of their brain. They can move emotion from the limbic system to the more rational cerebral cortex by literally talking things through. Boys have a tendency to push emotion down towards the brain stem, triggering an extreme fight or flight response. Sadly, boys are much more likely to get into trouble at school because of how their brain impels them to act.

So is the nature/nurture debate entirely redundant? Well, yes and no. Whilst we understand that boys and girls are born with fundamental differences, they both have advantages and disadvantages in the way their brains work. In gaining an understanding of these factors, we can help to overcome any disadvantages they may face. For example, we can teach boys to talk through their emotions, and we can inspire girls to become more competitive and less passive.

Naturally there are many boys (and men) who are articulate, empathic and intuitive – as well as many girls (and women) who are highly talented scientists and mathematicians. The idea is not to segregate or judge, or, worse, to argue that one type of brain is better than another. It’s a scary thought that Victorian scientists used their discovery that female brains were smaller as ‘evidence’ that men were more intelligent than women.

In today’s busy, co-educational classrooms, it is far more important that teachers try to get to know each child as an individual, rather than make sweeping generalisations. But knowledge and understanding are always powerful motivators and there are calls for teachers to have more training in gender differences as part of their ongoing professional development. Kathy Stevens, writer of Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls, says that studies such as these aren’t ‘giving schools and families yet another thing to do, but giving them a new way to make the important things they are already doing more effective…’

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