Youth Services Law

Gender Differences (and Learning Styles) May Be Hard-Wired

Gender differences in learningI am late discovering this 2013 study from the National Academy of Sciences, which found gender differences in  how brains are wired.  Literally.  The study was a large one, looking at 949 young people between the ages of 8 and 22, and analyzing brain connectivity, or how regions of the brain communicate.  The researchers found significant gender differences.  In general, male brains "had greater within-hemispheric connectivity," while in the female brains, "between-hemispheric connectivity and cross-module participation predominated."  

The study concluded

Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

Not being a scientist or doctor, I vaguely interpreted the last sentence to mean that, in general and subject to many exceptions, boys and young men are better at task-oriented work, while girls and young women are better at group-oriented projects.  According to Science Daily, I was mostly correct:

[O]n average, men are more likely better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women have superior memory and social cognition skills, making them more equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.

Predictably, the study has provoked controversy, with criticism and a reply from the researchers.  It definitely challenges the prevailing narrative that gender differences are the result of culture, and that changing the culture can erase those differences.  But the study, and the studies that I hope will follow it, has important implications for educational organizations.  If boys' brains are wired differently than girls, then an educational system that emphasizes cooperative learning styles (or, like many of our current programs, treats boys as defective girls) will leave boys behind.

I understand the argument that past educational programs have benefitted boys at the expense of girls.  The solution, however, is not to tilt the balance to benefit girls at the expense of boys.  Eventually we have to recognize that education is not a one-size-fits-all assembly line, and if science shows gender-based biological differences, then we need to adapt our teaching styles to that reality.

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