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Are there gender learning differences?

Gender Learning Differences

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In the 1960’s, when I was a young boy, gender learning differences were a widely accepted fact. It was well known that girls were better at learning language. Boys were better at math. These and other stereotypes were matters of fact.

Later, it became politically incorrect to talk about gender learning differences. It seemed that nobody wanted to discuss them. That’s until a space voyage came along.

The Mars and Venus Theory

In 1992, John Gray published Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. His book talked about a divide between men and women. He claimed this chasm is so wide that men and women act as if they come from different planets. Of course, Grey went on to create a cottage industry supporting his theory.

The Female and Male Brain

Another popular promoter of gender difference is the neuropsychiatrist (M.D.) and author Louann Brizendine. She has written two books: The Female Brain and The Male Brain.

The Female Brain is a bestseller. It has been published in 26 countries. In this book, Dr. Brizendine stresses the differences between the brains of the two sexes. She opines about the female brain and it’s “tremendous unique aptitudes – outstanding verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind, and the ability to defuse conflict.”

In her book, The Male Brain, Dr. Brizendine writes that the male brain is a “lean, mean problem-solving machine.” In both her books, her focus is on how brain differences explain male/female behavioral discrepancies.

Biologically Different Brains?

In another book, Why Gender Matters, psychologist and family physician Leonard Sax writes in length about gender learning differences. He does this by “explaining the biologically different ways in which children think, feel, and act.”

Drs. Sax and Brizendine are just two examples of books that argue that there are gender learning differences. These books support stereotypes for male and female brains. This has given rise to gender difference zealots who argue for the necessity of gender segregated classrooms.

These zealots argue that female and male brains are so innately different that they are hardwired to act in certain ways. This theory explains why girls are innately more relational and boys are more competitive.

Brain Research

In her book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, researcher Lise Eliot, found little evidence for innate gender learning differences. She writes, “What I found, after an exhaustive search, was surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” She goes on to write that, while adult brains have larger gender differences, these differences are also small.

Another researcher, Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre in Birmingham, UK, agrees. In her book, The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain, Rippon theorizes that gender differences at birth are small but increase due to cultural influences. This is because “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain.”

Politically Motivated?

In the fourth edition of Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, Diane F. Halpern, the former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), also writes about these supposed differences.  

In this textbook she writes, “One of the most distressing outcomes of modern neuroscience is the way findings are being misused to advance political agendas. Fine (2010) has coined the term “neurosexism” for the misuse of neuroscience to justify sex role stereotypes.”

She goes on to write, “Perhaps the most distressing development is the misuse of what we know about cognitive sex differences to claim that boys and girls are so different they need different types of education.”

Are There Gender Learning Differences?

After reading all this, the question remains, are there gender learning differences? After reviewing the research, similar to the idea of two-sided brains, I am unsure of the answer. My view is that, if there is, it is much smaller than I originally thought.

What I am sure of is that we need more unbiased research to help us solve this puzzle, rather than research focused on backing up one theory or another. As Ms. Halpern points out, we need to conduct “openminded questioning about the nature and strength of evidence behind any claim of sex difference; an appreciation of the complexity of the questions about cognitive sex differences; and the ability to see multiple sides of an issue, while also realizing that some claims are well reasoned and supported by data and others are politicized pseudoscience.”

What do you think?