Do Boys and Girls Learn Differently?

  • 2020-21
Do Boys and Girls Learn Differently?

It seems that boys and girls might learn differently. The suspicion is confirmed by several neurologists and psychologists, who have identified stereotypical ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain types. The complication is that a boy can have a more ‘female’ brain and vice versa.

What follows is a necessarily generalised picture. This is a fiercely debated and highly controversial topic, not least because this kind of neuroscience is in its infancy, and because there exist many boys and girls who do not conform to the pattern. But let’s look at some of the ideas. 

Girls in the U.K. consistently outperform boys academically. This is especially true in literacy and communication. This fact is not confined solely to the UK. It is a world-wide phenomenon, and is true in each of the OECD’s 27 nations. In short, girls score significantly higher than boys in the education system of every developed country across the globe.

Cultural conditioning reinforces differences but it appears that the differences are not just learned, they are innate. In essence, the differences are hard-wired into our brains.

99% of boys’ speech is generally comprehensible by the age of 4. Yet 99% of girls’ speech is comprehensible by the age of 3, so – while it appears that boys enjoy more advanced spatial and motor skills – nevertheless at this age, girls seem to have a distinct learning advantage related to communication. 

Aged 7, girls tend to outperform boys in reading, writing, and verbal communication. Aged 11, 58% of girls are competent in all areas compared to just 41% of boys. Boys, therefore, tend to enter Senior School already well behind.

The gap is widest in the language-based subjects, though boys seem marginally better in Maths. Moreover, the gap never seems to close in the secondary years. If anything, the differences quicken with adolescence.

Around 60% of university graduates are now women – representing a transformation over recent decades. And girls tend to perform more consistently over the length of a course.

Multiple Choice questions are the only test in which boys consistently out-perform girls. No one knows why this is, but it may be that boys seem to play less safe in their responses, and are more willing to take a risk.

While girls are more reflective, boys tend to be more speculative. (This might reflect the stock market, where men are responsible for the most spectacular gains as well as the most catastrophic losses.)

Boys often raise their hands impulsively in a lesson without knowing the answer, and they often need to be persuaded to think and reflect before they respond.

The female brain is on average about 10% smaller than the male brain. But while the male brain may be bigger, activity takes place more quickly, more often and in more places at the same time in the female brain.

Never at rest, compared to the male brain, the female brain therefore seems to have a true learning advantage.

In the ‘female’ brain type, emotional responses are processed in the top part of the brain, which is the same hemisphere that deals with speech. Emotional responses therefore stimulate verbal responses, making them potentially more sensitive learners.

Boys, on the other hand, typically process their emotions at the bottom of the brain. This instead short-circuits intellectual activity, which takes place at the top. As such, it appears that for teenage boys, emotional responses will sadly tend to suppress learning.

Boys grow bored and restless much more quickly. This is presented by some as a neurological fact. Girls seem to be better at managing boredom. The ‘fight or flight’ response is strongest in boys, and they are much quicker either to switch off or to become disruptive.

Boys are 50% more likely to be held back a year academically, according to statistics.

The question is, can the gap between girls and boys ever be closed? Probably not, is the answer given by some, as the neurology is hard-wired. But it is possible to narrow the gap significantly.  

Positive male role models help – both in the classroom and at home. And it is a shame therefore that across the world there are not more men working in Primary schools. Frequent and short-term deadlines also help, with work delivered in bite-sized chunks.

Girls often dominate reward systems in schools. Boys thrive on praise but this requires sensitivity and for many boys a word in private is preferred to public praise. Boys also tend to need clearer boundaries for behaviour.

A culture of ‘laddishness’ or macho behaviour can adversely affect boys’ learning, and it is important for schools to foster a non-macho atmosphere. Seating plans can help, separating pairings of children that prove problematic.

In a positive way, boys can be more concise – which can help when they are under time pressure in examinations. Girls tend to write more than asked for. Boys tend to write no more than they need to, but this can be an advantage for boys in certain examination situations when a short, distilled answer is required.

There is a danger of stereotyping boys and girls in this regard. But being conscious of the potential differences allows us to develop strategies to improve boys’ performance without impacting negatively on the performance of girls.

We are delighted therefore that, at the BSM, boys generally perform at more of an equivalent level to girls, or at least are not too far behind. We are blessed with a parental culture that is intellectually supportive and encouraging, and this can help enormously.

Given 2,000 years of oppression, the present academic dominance of girls might seem a small recompense and a long over-due historical correction. But it is still the case that a woman who does several things at once is labelled a ‘multi-tasker’, while a male who manages the same feat is often accorded the status of a Renaissance Man.

The move away from manual to mental labour in society seems to benefit girls. The medical profession has been completely transformed in recent years. There are now many more female doctors than male – a radical change from just two or three decades ago.

Ultimately, of course, it is important to give every child the chance to fulfil their potential, to make available a range of opportunities in life, so that irrespective of gender, our students perform at the very best level they can.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

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