Editorial: Stop Pseudoscience of Gender Differences in Learning

LiseEliotCompressedI was honored to contribute a piece on gender gaps in education to the November issue of Educational Leadership, titled “The Myth of Pink and Blue Brains.” However, I am concerned that educators will be confused about seemingly contradictory statements between my article and the subsequent piece by King, Gurian, and Stevens (“Gender-Friendly Schools“) in the same issue.

As a neuroscientist, I am careful to base my claims on strict experimental evidence. I spent eight years researching and writing a recent book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, upon which my article is largely based. Unfortunately, King et al. do not hold the same standards of evidence, and their claims about neurologic differences in the box, “How Boys and Girls Learn Differently” (p. 41) are, frankly, bogus. Not one of their assertions about boys’ and girls’ brains is backed up by credible, well-accepted science, and certainly not by the studies they cite. What’s more, two of the four sources they cite are from popular, highly speculative works that have been widely derided by practicing scientists.

In fact, the very notion that “boys and girls learn differently”—now sadly an article of faith among many educators—is largely lacking in empirical support. Neither psychologists nor neuroscientists have identified any meaningful differences between boys’ and girls’ mental or neural processing as they learn how to speak, read, or memorize their times tables. Boys and girls obviously differ in their interests, but as extensive meta-analyses have shown, their differences in cognitive and emotional abilities—ranging from verbal and mathematical skill to attention span, memory, empathy, and even activity level—are far smaller than the range of such abilities among girls or boys alone.

In this light, teachers must carefully consider statements such as King et al.’s “boys are much more likely than girls to be graphic thinkers and kinesthetic learners.” Indeed, their own article highlights a classroom in which the majority of girls opted for a visual-spatial over a written project, counter to the claim that boys’ brains are more “graphically-oriented.” The truth is that all people learn kinesthetically, including the medical students, both male and female, whom I teach and who need to get their hands on real human brain specimens to consolidate their understanding of neuroanatomy. Children, both male and female, are even more kinesthetic than adults, as Piaget and Montessori first taught us.

Gender differences in academic performance are an important issue, but they are not going to be resolved through the propagation of pseudoscience. It’s time teachers appreciate the true, nuanced science of sex difference—that boys and girls are not from separate planets, and must be treated, first and foremost, as individuals, rather than gender stereotypes.

Post submitted by Lise Eliot, PhD, Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University, North Chicago, IL.

Laura Varlas is an ASCD project manager in publishing, and a graduate student in the secondary education: English/language arts program at George Washington University.