You are on page 1of 8

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

Closing the Gender Gap in Early Education:


Culture and the Influence of Biology
Joshua McWhorter
EDUC 255
4/25/16

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

For generations, education professionals have accepted the idea that the learning needs of
children in their classrooms were as individual and varied as their personalities.What you may not
realize is that up until a few decades ago, educators and acedemics weren't spending a lot of time
focusing on how boys and girls might learn and process information differently. Once they did, they
quickly recognized that there are sometimes substantial differences in how males and females develop
and use their brains during education. Yet, even today, with this knowledge widely available, the
majority of teachers still don't use any form of sex-based education at school to target the needs and
comfort of both males and females in their care. With this in mind, the focus of this paper is going to
be geared toward providing an informative overview of the reasons for some of these learning
differences and to provide readers with an idea of how to close some of the educational gaps between
males and females in the United States.
During my research I came across a number of informative books, but one, a book called Boys
and Girls Learn Differently, by Michael Gurian, went more into depth about the developmental
differences in the brains of boys and girls that educator's should be aware of when designing effective
methods for teaching. Gurian discusses how female brains tend to develop more quickly than male
brains, particularly in regions that have to do with verbalization and emotional processing--something
that all teachers should keep in mind when approaching the teaching of language and communication to
young boys. In addition to this, girls also show increased activity in the Cerebral Cortex, an area that
helps with multitasking, have denser collections of nerve fibers in the Corpus Callosum that allow for
better communication between hemispheres, and develop efficiencies in the Hippocampus for storing
episodic memory better than males typically doall of which helps young girls excel early in the
academic process.

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

This isn't one sided, of course, and not meant to give the impression that boys are less capable
or inferior to girls, only that developmental differences exist between these two groups that have
biological causes. For instance, males typically develop spatial reasoning skills faster than females
(doing better with subjects like geography), have more detail-oriented memories, maintain attention on
single-subjects longer, react faster to stimulus in their environment, and experience less long-term
stress due to how cortisol levels are handled in the brain. Something else of interest is how the Corpus
Callosum, which is typically less developed in males, also allows boys to stay more focused and taskoriented than girls, but changes how and where boys process language and emotionone of the likely
factors that adds to the compulsive behavior seen in boysand probably why so many teachers feel
that males in their class are more likely to blurt answers out or interrupt during lessons. They are
literally reacting to stimuli before the higher reasoning portions of their brains have had a chance to
catch up with the rest of their cognitive processes (James, 2007).
What these biological influences may indicate, although generalized, is that young males are
likely to benefit more from content focused environments where they are allowed to concentrate on
single subjects closer, and for longer periods of time. Taking more of a step-by-step approach to
problem solving and comprehension (Reichert; Hawley. 2010). Females, on the other hand, are more
adept at transitioning between subjects and working on multiple topics at once, and display the capacity
to keep focus in more chaotic environments. Which is probably due to their increased capacity for
multitasking, language, and their increased verbal-based memory skills, helping them stay on topic and
follow the instructions of the teacher at a younger age. Because of these differences some experts have
called for more single-sex education programs, especially early in development, that allow teachers to
formulate curriculum geared specifically toward the individual learning needs of boys and girls.
Also of note, is that according to Gurian's book, females are significantly faster at processing
emotional information due to where such information is being processes in the brain. In males, the

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

Amygdala, which handles fear responses, is larger and tends to be the dominant region in the brain for
handling emotional processing. In young females, the Amygdala is also important for emotional
processing, but they quickly begin to transition over to the Hippocampus as the dominant center for
processing such informationa part of the brain that handles inhibition and memory (James, 2009).
Due to this, boys are more likely to process information in the area of the brain associated with fightand-flight responses and rage, as well as visual data and central details (James, 2007), while women
tend to process information in the regions of the brain associated with verbal memory and peripheral
details (James, 2009), as well as higher reasoning (Durian, 2011).
Durian's book also gives us a classroom relevant example of how these processing differences
may effect learning. In his example, he talks about how a fight between siblings and parents right
before school may result in delays in their ability to learnparticularly in boys. The male child may
still be processing the situation emotionally several hours later while in school, while his sister is likely
to have already processed that information and verbally discussed it with peers and moved on
allowing her to focus on schoolwork more effectively than her sibling. Because of these differences,
teachers should learn to be aware of how and when these emotional needs manifest and impact
learning, and recognize that boys tend to be more emotionally fragile than girlsregardless of widely
accepted cultural perceptions to the contrary. It should also be stated that females tend to take things on
a more personal level than their male counterparts because they process emotions in areas of the brain
associated with higher reasoning, allowing them to make more associations between what they feel and
the actions that caused those responses (Gurian, 2011).
Given theses factors and the impact of emotional stress on learning, teachers should strive to
limit the influence of stress throughout the day and consider rearranging assignments, particularly
verbal and written assignments, to times when students are more likely to be experiencing the least
emotional baggage. This may help ensure that the male members of the group have had time to de-

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

stress emotionally and adjust to the educational environment when tackling work loads that are already
female-brain oriented.
The third area I would like to focus on is the behavioral differences between boys and girls,
which is influenced by both biology and culture (Gollnick; Chinn, 2009). According to our academic
text Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society, there are certain cultural expectations for the
behavior of males and females that influence identity. These culturally derived concepts of masculinity
and femininity generally stem from interactions with friends and family. For young males in American
society, there are often expectation to look tough by suppressing emotions and by acting out
physically and verbally when challenged, and even cultural supports that reinforce the idea that being
anti-authority gains them social favor. This sometimes creates barriers for teacher's attempting to reach
them on both an academic and personal level, leading to reduced school performance. For girls, there
are similar but often opposite expectations that are put forth, such as expectations that they act in a
subservient fashion to males, or take up female appropriate interests and activities like dance and
home-carestaying away from the sports and life goals of males.
It is easy to see how cultural influences like these could have impacts on how children respond
to their environment, what attitudes they have, and what roles they feel are acceptable for them.
Education professionals who want to break down these social barriers, and change negative cultural
stereotypes toward education in our society, may benefit from actively challenging such stigmas by
offering alternative viewpoints, providing emotional support, and by striving to present education and
the learning process in a more positive light. This, together with proper scaffolding, may encourage
more male students to think and act more favorably towards educationalthough it may be a little
more complicated than this.
In Doctor Leonard Sax's book Boys Adrift, he describes another reason for negative male
behavior in modern education: teaching at developmentally inappropriate times. In Sax's opinion, one

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

of the reasons for this shift in education in favor of female students is due to the biologically driven
differences in brain development, as well as the identity issues that may stem from inappropriate
grouping and labeling. For example, it is common for the language areas in the brain of an average five
year-old male student to be developmentally on par with the brain development of a three and a half
year-old female student. This may indicate that most boys are not ready to learn language at the same
time as girls, and that our increasingly academic style of education is forcing material on students who
are not yet physically equipped to handle such tasks easily (Sax, 2007). Unfortunately, this may have
tragic results for male students who become frustrated and act out because they aren't learning at the
same rate or with the same ease as other children in their environment. Often causing them to associate
learning and school with frustration, anger, and thoughts of inferiority. A stigma that may remain into
adulthood and be passed on to their own children. The result is that males often disengaging from the
educational process and reengage in other activities that they find rewarding and self-affirmingsuch
as video games, sports, gangs, or other non-beneficial youth activities (Sax, 2007).
Additionally, when teacher's group kids by ability, exempting them from activities, kid's may
pick up on these distinctions and begin to think they are inferior, or that the teacher doesn't like them as
much as the other students (Sax, 2007). Which may create resentment toward school, or frustration and
embarrassment that they aren't part of the smart group. When in fact, it is merely because they are not
yet developmentally ready to learn what they are being given.
Doctor Sax also brings up another relevant point: places like Finland, that consistently rank at
the top of testing and performance, don't begin teaching their kids until the age of seven when they feel
that they are developmentally capable of learning more complicated and abstract concepts like reading,
writing, math, and sciencekeeping them engaged in more social, creative, and play based forms of
education before that age, potentially helping them become more socially developed and creative
adults. Finland, and other nations in the Netherlands that follow similar approaches, also typically

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

experience fewer behavioral issues, have a narrower performance gap between male and female
students, and have a society that maintains a more positive opinion of the educational process in
general. Perhaps the United States would be wise to take note of these findings and work toward
instituting more flexibility into the education process, even if they don't increase the national age for
formal education.
What I believe is that the performance differences between boys and girls are a complex
combination of the subjects discussed above: biological, cultural, emotional, behavioral, and social
and the solutions necessary to lessen these gaps need to be addressed from a scientific standpoint. We
need to put the student at the center of the educational process, focusing less on rote memorization and
standards-based assessment and more on individual development. In doing this, I believe that we will
create a more positive image of education in this country and reduce the barriers that keep students
struggling. As Sir Ken Robinson once stated, we put our children through the educational process like
the best thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. Perhaps, at its core, this is the
fundamental problem with our approach to teaching boys and girls, we need to recognize their
differences rather than ignoring them, and design the classroom around the needs of people instead of
groups.

Ivy Tech Community College Multicultural Teaching

Works Cited:

Gollnick, D. M., & Chinn, P. C. (2009). Multicultural education in a pluralistic society. Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Pearson Merrill.
Gurian, M. (2011). Boys and girls learn differently!: A guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass.
James, A. N. (2009). Teaching the Female Brain: How Girls Learn Math and Science. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Corwin press.
James, A. N. (2007). Teaching the male brain: How boys think, feel, and learn in school. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Reichert, M., & Hawley, R. A. (2010). Reaching boys, teaching boys: Strategies that work and why.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sax, L. (2009). Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and
Underachieving Young Men. Basic Books.