Eliminating the gender gap in education

In the 2005 March 28 issue of Time magazine was entitled “The Math Myth: The real truth about Women’s Brains and the gender gap in Science“.  In its key article “The Myth of the Math Gender Gap”, the article cites new data that shows today’s “girls and boys take advanced math in high school in equal numbers, and women receive nearly half of all bachelor degrees given in math in the U.S. — and their scores are closing the gap.” Despite this true situation, the article says “the stereotype that boys are better at math is alive and strong,”  and that “Parents still believe it, and teachers still believe it.”

In another article “Who Says A Woman Can’t Be Einstein?” excerpted below, it is suggested that knowing the different ways in which boys’ and girls’ brains mature means we can adjust the ways we teach and provide performance training in certain areas in order to eliminate the gender gap in education:

“Among the girls in Giedd’s study, brain size peaks around age 11 1/2. For the boys, the peak comes three years later. “For kids, that’s a long time,” Giedd says. His research shows that most parts of the brain mature faster in girls. But in a 1999 study of 508 boys and girls, Virginia Tech researcher Harriet Hanlon found that some areas mature faster in boys. Specifically, some of the regions involved in mechanical reasoning, visual targeting and spatial reasoning appeared to mature four to eight years earlier in boys. The parts that handle verbal fluency, handwriting and recognizing familiar faces matured several years earlier in girls.”

“SO HOW DO WE EXPLAIN WHY, IN STUDY after study, boys and men are still on average better at rotating 3-D objects in their minds? As for girls and women, how do we explain why they tend to have better verbal skills and social sensitivities?

The most surprising differences may be outside the brain. “If you have a man and a woman looking at the same landscape, they see totally different things,” asserts Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist whose book Why Gender Matters came out last month. “Women can see colors and textures that men cannot see. They hear things men cannot hear, and they smell things men cannot smell.” Since the eyes, ears and nose are portals to the brain, they directly affect brain development from birth on.

In rats, for example, we know that the male retina has more cells designed to detect motion. In females, the retina has more cells built to gather information on color and texture. If the same is true in humans, as Sax suspects, that may explain why, in an experiment in England four years ago, newborn boys were much more likely than girls to stare at a mobile turning above their cribs. It may also help explain why boys prefer to play with moving toys like trucks while girls favor richly textured dolls and tend to draw with a wider range of colors, Sax says.”

“UNTIL RECENTLY, THERE HAVE BEEN TWO groups of people: those who argue sex differences are innate and should be embraced and those who insist that they are learned and should be eliminated by changing the environment. Sax is one of the few in the middle–convinced that boys and girls are innately different and that we must change the environment so differences don’t become limitations.

At a restaurant near his practice in Montgomery County, Md., Sax spreads out dozens of papers and meticulously makes his case. He is a fanatic, but a smart, patient one. In the early 1990s, he says, he grew alarmed by the “parade” of parents coming into his office wondering whether their sons had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Sax evaluated them and found that, indeed, the boys were not paying attention in school. But the more he studied brain differences, the more he became convinced that the problem was with the schools. Sometimes the solution was simple: some of the boys didn’t hear as well as the girls and so needed to be moved into the front row. Other times, the solution was more complex.

Eventually, Sax concluded that very young boys and girls would be better off in separate classrooms altogether. “[Previously], as far as I was concerned, single-sex education was an old-fashioned leftover. I thought of boys wearing suits and talking with British accents,” he says. But coed schools do more harm than good, he decided, when they teach boys and girls as if their brains mature at the same time. “If you ask a child to do something not developmentally appropriate for him, he will, No. 1, fail. No. 2, he will develop an aversion to the subject,” he says. “By age 12, you will have girls who don’t like science and boys who don’t like reading.” And they won’t ever go back, he says. “The reason women are underrepresented in computer science and engineering is not because they can’t do it. It’s because of the way they’re taught.”

So far, studies about girls’ and boys’ achievements in same-sex grammar schools are inconclusive. But if it turns out that targeting sex differences through education is helpful, there are certainly many ways to carry it out. Says Giedd: “The ability for change is phenomenal. That’s what the brain does best.” A small but charming 2004 study published in Nature found that people who learned how to juggle increased the gray matter in their brains in certain locations. When they stopped juggling, the new gray matter vanished. A similar structural change appears to occur in people who learn a second language. Remember that new research on spatial memory in rhesus monkeys? The young females dramatically improved their performance through simple training, wiping out the gender gap altogether.”


Related links:

  • The Myth of the Math Gender Gap
  • Cover Story: Sizing Up The Sexes 
  • A Land Where Girls Rule in Math
  • Steering Girls into Science
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