In article, we focus on the currently accepted gender-neutral pedagogy prevalent in schools not only in India but also around the globe. Particularly in their formative years, typically from the age of 2 to 6, this approach starkly illustrates the learning differences in boys and girls. There are opposing societal views on the relevance of single sex schooling in a modern world where men and women are treated as equals: the progressives believe that differences need to be eliminated from childhood to promote the notion of equality, particularly in a gender-polarised country such as ours where violence against women is not merely happenstance. Conversely, moral traditionalists, typically those not from pedagogical backgrounds, argue that separation leads to less “trouble in society”; not understanding that familiarity with the opposite sex can lead to mutual respect. However, we can all agree that less trouble in society is possible through the education of our youth and, more specifically, how we instruct them during the most crucial period of their lives. Now, the question, which persists, is: Why do boys and girls learn differently?
The Dichotomy between Boys and Girls
For the neuropsychologists and pedagogues among us, there is wide acceptance of the theory that the human brain cannot be considered as one for both sexes; differences subsist. However, for those not familiar with this concept, a basic understanding that sexual dimorphisms do exist in humans will suffice. From the days of the ancient Greeks to just over 20 years ago, suggestions first and research later had illustrated the differences between the brain’s sexual dimorphisms; however, the bearing upon daily tasks was not considered relevant. Through MRI and PET scans, the functional and structural differences between male and female brains have emphasised the learning – among other neurological – dissimilarities. Knowledge of these differences can help both parents and educators understand that the same teaching strategy working for boys may not necessarily be as effective for girls, and vice-versa.
As an example, women display an enhanced capability to process language activities with greater ease when compared to men; this is very prominent in the ability prepubescent girls to recollect lists of words and their enhanced writing skills. Conversely, they lag behind in mechanical-spatial and gross motor tasks, thus clarifying the reason behind the inclination of boys towards physical activities and video games. This explains the ability of boys to learn more by doing a certain activity and the reason why preschools adopt this “experiential learning” approach. It is important to mention that these variations in cognition relate to ability and not overall intelligence.
The Effect in Schools
Preschools emphasise neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to be trained, by implementing experiential learning for both boys and girls – they perform tasks not genetically “hardwired”: for instance, girls will be given activities that make use of their spatial skills and boys will be tasked with reading and writing. A balance is drawn so that a child engages in activities that naturally appeal to him or her, while using neuroplasticity to learn new tasks by doing and through repetition.
However, when a child begins primary school, the majority of learning activities are based upon reading, writing, and on the ability to recall, which are more favourable towards girls. Thus, assessments in school should extend beyond rote memorisation, since it prioritises the ability to recollect information over the ability to think and make associations. Boys and even some girls struggle with this transition from preschools, where there is no assessment forcing their comparatively underdeveloped brains to process information in certain manner, to primary schools, where a very narrow definition of success is imposed on them by adults from a very young age. Additionally, experience and training in activating this set of skills comes about during puberty and with the influence on testosterone upon learning under pressure – adolescent boys are able to perform tasks under pressure more effectively because of this neurochemical – enables normalisation the brain’s sexual dimorphism.
From a physiological perspective, prepubescent boys have little control over their innate biological tendency to be more energetic. They connect on a more physical – rather than on a verbal – level, bonding with games and projects. Watch any classroom during the gaps between the various sessions; you will notice that the boys jump up and run round as soon as the teacher leaves the room. In comparison, girls are not as physically active and very respectful of authority and mostly are seen sitting at their desks. The hours on end sit-down, rote-based learning system prevalent in primary schools often ignores this tendency by not having enough break/recess time; in turn, this suppresses the natural ability of boys to relate physically and results in the behavioural problems becoming academic problems. We all know a few examples from our own childhoods. Chastising boys both for “misbehaviour” and for having an underdeveloped ability to reason and having little self-control – this ability restrains their physicality later in life – coupled with additional parental and teacher pressure for the child to excel in a disadvantageous learning system puts them down and can create a sense of negativity where there should be none.
The first things parents, pedagogues, and especially teachers can do is to acknowledge these differences in the brain function of boys and girls. Generally, preschools seem to have struck a good balance between allowing boys enough time to tire out physically, and the language activities. The lack of assessments during this phase encourages a desire to learn more. Primary schools can implement longer than usual breaks since transitioning from an environment that promotes movement, which increases blood flow to the brain, to one promoting significantly less, is not easy on boys. The energy levels and higher metabolism require an outlet. Moreover, teachers can promote movement by permitting children to stand while reading, for example, together with other similar activities. Advice to parents: be aware of the learning needs of your child, whether boy or girl, since your influence is central to their overall development.