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.

13 COMMENTS

  1. This is a bothersome set of “studies” that created a windfall of speakers, books, articles, and nonsense about the gender gap, and much of this pseudoscience has led educators to make ill-informed decisions. Girls and boys need the same things; learning specific goals and a way to make those objectives…treat them equally please=)
    http://msjessicareeves.edublogs.org

  2. As a 20+ year veteran of public education, I bring something to this conversation about effective practice that Lise Eliot does not. I actually work with children. I have toiled in classrooms for the past two decades to help children learn. Absolutely – some of our wisdom comes from the books. And let’s not forget that real educators like me and the EL readers know that much of our wisdom comes from the children. This combination of research and professional teacher wisdom is what we call “evidence-based practice” – something that those who work only in laboratory and office settings can’t fully appreciate. In all fairness, it is difficult – if not impossible – for a non-educator to understand all the complexities and nuances that go into the daily work of educating children.
    In October 2009, Lise and I participated together as guests in a radio interview. Lise’s first position was that there are “…no biological differences between boys and girls.” After challenging Lise’s statements with a few studies (including Connellan, Baron-Cohen et al.,2000), Lise retracted her original position and acknowledged that there are, in fact, some hard-wired differences between males and females that are evident in behavioral differences at birth. She qualified this statement, however, by saying that male-female brain differences are very small – perhaps only about 3%. (I found that statement interesting. The chimpanzee genome was published in Nature in 2005, and shows that the DNA sequences of humans and chimps are more than 98 percent identical.) Lise went on to explain that these small biological differences are magnified through life experience and socialization.
    AHA! So while we may argue here about fractions of percentages, I believe that we share a common research-based understanding: Both sociological and biological influences influence human development and that neither can be divorced from the other.
    Mike, Kathy and I are proud that our piece, “Gender-Friendly Schools,” is packed with real-life stories of teachers succeeding with children. The success stories we share are 100% real and are proof-positive that our work is making a difference. Schools are meeting AYP for the first time, their discipline problems are down, and their student achievement is up. How can anyone argue with that kind of success?
    The strategies that we recommend are supported through multiple bodies of research on effective instruction, including Marzano, Pickering and Pollock, Levine, Jensen, and more. We do not stand alone in recommending strategies such as more movement and multi-sensory instruction. For too long, the influence of a child’s gender on his/her interests and learning styles has not been considered. We cannot look at opportunity gaps associated with race, income and language background and refuse to look at the influence of a student’s gender.
    Let’s all commit to rolling up our sleeves and do the real work with children in classrooms – because today’s students cannot afford to wait. I encourage non-educators like Lise to do the same. That, my fellow educators, is what evidence-based practice is all about: Let’s let success speak for itself.

  3. It is with interest and some measure of bewilderment that I read of the debate being held in this particular forum for I think both parties have some very valid and interesting points. However, I also think that Professor Eliot, whom I hold in very high regard, is doing herself somewhat of a disservice in that she appears to be dogmatic and disrespectful to some of her peers in the neuroscience field while simultaneously not taking into account the ‘evidence-based-practice’ noted by Kelly King and widely used by teachers in may western countries. To that end I think some measure of debate is good but simply decrying that those who are attempting to bridge any form of educational gaps in schools resulting from gender differences as working on pseudoscience does great disservice to the teachers at the coalface and the informative and research backed works of many distinguished neuroscientists and cognitive researchers. To add to this dialogue I would like to add the following points for consideration:
    • It is interesting that Professor Eliot announces that there aren’t any differences but then notes ‘three little differences’ and later strategies for accommodating differences…surely this is not dissimilar to the structure of the very work she decries as problematic. While she also notes that neuroscientists have “identified very few reliable differences between boys’ and girls’ brains”, she gives little credence to a widely accepted belief by many scientists that this may be due to inadequacies in the current available technology rather than the likelihood of no differences. Many scientists would agree that in terms of our understanding of the human brain what we know is infinitesimal to what we do not know…this keeps them in their jobs and generating article after article each year.
    • I also find it interesting that Professor Eliot would take aim at educators or those looking to bridge any educational gender gap by tacitly suggesting that neuroscientific work done in the area is problematic or unreliable. I suspect that if she were to shift her focus to some of her contemporaries she may find herself up against quite a voracious chorus of disdain and anger. Surely the works of Simon Baron-Cohen, Diane Halpern, Doreen Kimura, Larry Cahill and others who have studied gender differences in the brain should be held with the measure of respect Professor Eliot would expect.
    • By most accounts the vast majority of neuroscientists I have met or their works that I have read acknowledge that our neurological make-up is a product of both nature and nurture and not one or the other. So yes, the experiences we offer children will impact on their learning and behaviour but is it such a far cry to suggest that innate gender differences whether known or as yet to be discovered will also impact on learning and behaviour….probably not, so perhaps it would be better to assist ‘non-scientists’ by offering advice or suggestions rather than attacking their work which at the end of the day is designed to enhance the educational experiences of children be they male or female. I know Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens and their work and while there may be some areas I might disagree with I do know that at the core of what they do is a desire to make educational experiences for all children positive, supportive and educative.
    I also think it is important to add that I am looking forward to reading Professor Eliot’s book. As noted earlier I do like what she has offered to the general public but I am curious to see how she reconciles some of her previous assertions about gender in one of her earlier works where she notes:
    o “….most evidence suggests that boys and girls do begin with different strengths…”
    o “certain gender differences emerge very early before socialization and gender-specific play are likely to have much influence…”
    o …there is evidence that male and female brains differ even before birth in ways that may set them out on slightly different courses of cognitive development…”
    o ….boys and girls brains respond differently to speech sounds, even in the first days of life, and that by three months, girls’ left hemispheres are more responsive to language than boys….”
    o ….male fetuses tend to have a thicker right hemisphere, particularly in the higher visual areas that would be involved in spatial analysis, while the hemispheres of female fetuses do not differ in thickness….
    o …estrogen and testosterone actually affect the way we think (my emphasis)…”
    These few selected quotes come from Professor Eliot’s book – What’s Going On in There: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, p.434…by my account this seems somewhat hypocritical to the stance she is currently taking and may place her in the same category of those very neuroscientists she attempts to discredit and those individuals who try to adapt that work in the day to day realites of working with children.
    One final note…it is important to recognise that 2009 witnessed an important event acknowledging the emergence of a new yet nascent discipline being referred to as ‘Neuroeducation’. The Neuroscience Research in Education Summit held June 24-29 at the University of California, Irvine and hosted by the Society for Neuroscience advocated a continuing dialogue among scientists, educators, and policymakers about how brain science can contribute to the field of education and importantly how education can offer ideas for neuroscientific research. Currently programs at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard, among others, are actively merging the boundaries between neuroscience and education vis-à-vis neuroeducation in an effort to get the most recent data and scientific literature in the hands of teachers while simultaneously utilising educators to help forge new research pathways. To that end I would think that Professor Eliot’s obvious expertise in neuroscience at the nexus of her apparent passion for education would be better placed in respectful and constructive dialogues with educators rather that what some might consider a publicity opportunity for promoting a new book. Teachers learn a great deal from the science that is available and do their best to make sense of it, and arguably Professor Eliot would do well do learn from those who work with the day-to-day realities of classroom endeavour and make sense of their worlds which might invoke new research ideas for exploring gender differences in the brain rather than trying to totally negate the impact of those differences on learning and behaviour altogether.

  4. I serve as the Coordinator for Single-Gender Initiatives for the State of South Carolina. I have worked as an educator with teachers of single-gender programs for six years (and an educator for 15 years.) In my monthly email to teachers across the state and country I included included a link to these articles as well as my comment (I send a newsletter out every month and plan on including more about his in the November issue.)
    The article by Lise Eliot argues that biological gender differences are minor and socialization is a much greater force creating a gendered world. In fact, she argues briefly against single-gender education. She provides a few suggestions to aid in reducing the “opportunity gaps” between boys and girls: avoid stereotypes, appreciate the range of intelligences, strengthen spatial awareness, engage boys with the word, recruit boys into nonathletic extracurricular activities, bring more men into the classroom, and treat teacher bias seriously. I don’t think anyone involved who recognizes that gender is an important issue within the classroom would argue against any of these recommendations. In fact, those of us involved with single-gender education strive to do everything that is listed above. Lise Elliot does a good job in warning educators to not reduce or prejudge students based on supposed brain-based or hormone types. Again, we all agree on this. The key is that gender is a factor within classrooms that impacts how students interact with teachers, peers, and content. Regardless of causes, there are gendered manifestations within the classroom of which the teachers must be aware. Single-gender education opportunities should not be designed due to any perceived learning difference, but based on data that shows that there are gendered academic and/or behavior gaps, that boys or girls are not achieving a desired level, or as a way to provide additional educational choices for parents.
    The second article is by the trio from the Gurian Institute: Kelley King, Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens. All three are published authors on books related to gender, teaching and strategies. Their article argues that there are gender differences in learning and provides several recommendations to make classrooms more “boy-friendly or girl-friendly”: add movement, build on the visual, and incorporate student interest and choice. Again, nothing they said about strategies is controversial. Multiple books on best practice argue for moving students in instructional ways, using visuals to support learning, and using interest inventories. In fact, their list looks very similar to something from multiple intelligences or learning styles.
    It is important for educators to know that writers linking “hardwired” gender differences to recommended instructional practices have received critique from many authors (including Lise Eliot, Peg Tyre and most recently Cordelia Fine) regarding the arguments about neurological and hormone-based gender differences. Educators need to consider multiple sides when recommended strategies are being justified and professional development services are being hired.
    MY TAKE: Overall, the strategies presented in the articles are nothing new. They are just wrapped up within a new gendered language. As an educator and someone who works with teachers involved with focusing on boys and girls, we need to be able to move past the debate of cause and see that there may be something in how strategies are implemented within classrooms that may affect some boys and girls differently for whatever reason. To that end, I have been suggesting in my training sessions for over a year that STRUCTURE and CONNECTION are the keys to modifying and improving lessons for boys and girls. Yes, spatial awareness, verbal skills, movement and choice are all important for all students (actually I have found that there are 14 common big strategies recommended across multiple texts on best practice), but teachers may need to first consider increasing the level of structure to better engage typical groups of boys who are not engaging the task as well as desired and first consider increasing the level of connection to better engage typical groups of girls who are not engaging the task as well as desired. This does not mean that structure isn’t important for girls and that connection isn’t important for boys. But, when initially considering lessons or reflecting on unsuccessful lessons these two factors may be needed more by different groups.

  5. I find Professor Eliot’s article disheartening. During my tenure as a teacher for over 36 years,I have always been interested in the latest research to be the best teacher and help all my students be successful. I found Michael Gurian’s material to be extremely important and helpful. It definitely gave me new insight, especially in dealing with my middle school boys.
    Attending the Gurian Institute and becoming a trainer gave me the opportunity to share that insight with others. I can’t tell you how many educators, after attending a training, would tell me how the gender information helped them.
    Of course, gender is only a part of what makes children who they are. Culture, socio-economic issues, IQ, etc. play a part in children’s success. But what a shame that Professor Eliot will not accept the fact that gender research is valuable, and should be a part of any educator’s tool box.

  6. To Kelley, Karen, and other “Gurian Institute” trainers, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. I’m sure you have found effective ways to improve classroom performance, just like all good educators who continually modify our methods. All I’m saying is that the neuroscience you are claiming to base your techniques on is not accurate. (Nor, as I point out above, are your teaching techniques necessarily beneficial for just one or the other gender.) You have grossly extrapolated a few findings that even the scientists themselves would never claim to be relevant to a classroom.
    My suggestion: drop the SPECT scans and Connellan* references and stick to what you do best. Also, don’t claim you are doing research when you are merely reporting anecdotes. What bothers me and other academics is using the imprimatur of science to elevate your credibility. You sell lots of books and run lots of workshops based on a false premise of “brain-based” education.
    *surely one of the most over-hyped experiments in recent memory, heartily critiqued at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=261

  7. You quote me accurately, thank you, but if you’ll read my new book, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” you’ll see how I came to change my mind about the degree to which gondadal hormones shape cognitive sex differences. Once I decided to devote a full book to the topic, I rounded up all extant data, and found, for example, that circulating estrogen and testosterone have extremely modest, if any, effects on cognitive skills. Similarly, the Shucard et al. (1981) study that found different neural responses in newborn boys and girls to speech sounds has been directly contradicted by more recent studies. (So we still don’t understand why girls talk earlier than boys, though it’s clear that they do, by a month on average.)
    This is how science works: hypotheses are made, tested and revised. Of course neuroscience will have relevance to education…someday. But we’re not quite there yet, as the UC Irvine Conference illustrates. For now, psychologists and teachers still have a deeper insight into how children learn in real-life classrooms, and as long as their research is objective and free of Hawthorne effects, we should base educational reforms on this.

  8. First, I just want to comment that even among those who contrast “male-wired” and “female-wired” brains, there is frequently acknowledgment that maybe 5-10% of birth-identified boys have “female” brains, and that the equivalent is true of birth-identified girls. To my mind, that means that with whomever you may be working, you need to react to the person in front of you with the brain they have and not worry too much about preconceived notions. That said…
    Dr. Eliot, I am wondering what you think about Louann Brizendine’s work. I teach in an all-girls school, and some of us read her book “The Female Brain” two summers ago. Thank you.

  9. Yes, there are boys whose psychological profile is more prototypically feminine and girls whose profiles are more masculine. But I don’t think you can divide them into clear % categories: “real girl,” “real boy,” “girly boy,” and “tomboy.” I think–and the data show–that every trait is a continuum, with average boys and average girls clustered slightly apart, but between these peaks many boys and girls who fall in between in reading, math, empathy, competitiveness, assertiveness, athleticism, creativity, etc.
    As for Brizendine’s books, I find them pretty wretched. Though she cites zillions of references, they rarely match up to the claims in the text, which are basically a string of Mars/Venus stereotypes about chatty, emotional women and hunkering, sex-obsessed and silent men. I haven’t published any reviews, but agree with Mark Liberman’s take, “Neuroscience in the Service of Sexual Stereotypes” (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003419.html). Another review in the journal Nature dubbed Brizendine’s work “Psychoneuroindoctrinology” (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v443/n7112/full/443634a.html).
    This admittedly is the problem with writing trade books, which are not peer-reviewed. You just have to trust the author to honestly cite sources. I am pretty obsessive about this, which is why my “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” is not a simple polemic but tries to explain the nuanced interaction of both nature and nurture. But it also means it doesn’t get the hype that Brizendine and Gurian have attracted; so the message is harder to get out.

  10. Respected Friends,
    Regarding the articles in the November 10 issue of EL Magazine:
    It is not particularly helpful for one who is trying to stay oriented, in a canoe full of contemporary challenges, that respected polar references are now projecting anti-magnetic missiles rather than the certain magnetic attraction they have provided.
    I have found and shared the wisdom of early childhood development in Professor Eliot’s What’s Going On In There with many, from expectant parents to experienced older adults. Thank you Lise, for the work you have done and are doing. Your devotion to “pure” science is obvious and respected… up to that point where the unknown and perhaps unknowable invites the courageous to continue their journey. Beyond that scary limit we go on hoping the world is not flat.
    Your new book is on order and it is my expectation I will again find much to admire and integrate and probably some to place in my wonder and cogitate file. I will use what is useable and hold the balance in respected abeyance.
    By the same token I have explored, evaluated and chosen to relate to Michael Gurian, Kathy Stevens and Kelley King along with others willing to present the findings we respect and share with those whose open-minds are prepared to receive. I have read the Gurian/Stevens/Kelley books and use their ideas as well as enjoy the reports of effectiveness from those who implement them.
    I am quite certain that most, as I do, present the information in not so much a dogmatic way as an invitation to a buffet of possible thoughts and actions that have made a difference to boys and girls. Some of us subscribe to a combination of the “Try it you may like it” as well as the “How’s that working for you” schools of application.
    I am not sure I see the value of the present jousting and rather heated charges. Certainly there is enough room for all in what is an uncertain field of work and concerns. In this world that seems hell-bent on ultimate right and ultimate left (substitute wrong in either case) most of us who live in the real-world of in-between continue on our experiential way not so much affected by the myopia of the microscope or the panorama of the global vision. It is hard work to find the next solid place on which to put the foot!
    Perhaps we would all be better served by civil discourse and a willingness to let the true laboratory of life generate truth, in its often fleeting form. Research that is too full of itself always deserves the application of common sense to make sure it’s pronouncements are not the producers of nonsense. I enjoy the wise advice of Einstein’s admonition, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
    It is wonderful to have an opportunity to consider and select from two such admired sources. I, for one, will continue to keep my feet on the ground while allowing my thoughts free rein. It seems far more important to major on what I can produce than what I can “prove” in the vastness of this area of exploration. To the end that you provide both information and inspiration, thank you.

  11. It’s good to have input from both sides of this (and every) issue. Dr. Eliot has provided a counter argument to the “gender differences” debate and for that I appreciate her comments. However, having been a teacher in the classroom for many years, and having taught every grade and subject from 1st-12th, I can honestly say the most useful information I ever received from any speaker anywhere on any topic was from Dr. Leonard Sax. Sorry Dr. Eliot. Your research wouldn’t help me in the classroom. Dr. Sax and his research have definitley helped me in the classroom. The true test of research is in the application, not the theory. While I am not sold on the concept of single gender schools, I am sold on the concept that boys and girls develop and learn differently. I’ve seen it, experienced it, and become a better instructor because I have applied it.

  12. I enjoyed Lise Eliot’s article, but most of the comments reinforced the experiences I’ve had with so many teahcers. At a deep subconscious level, so many of them they believe that boys are superior to girls and think we need patriarchy to survive.
    When they address the sexes, they always put boys first and they would be aghast if someone told them, “Come on. Say girls and boys. For once in your lifetime, stop putting boys first and stop viewing the male as the normative human being.”
    Teachers are usually very sexist. When they quote authorities, they usually quote men. When they teacher the “great literature,” they usually ignore great books written by women.
    Before teachers comment about sex differences, they need to work on their own subconscious bias against girls.

  13. Steve, stop listing boys first. Start saying girls and boys. Stop viewing the male as the norm of humanity. Your job is to help every girl achieve her highest potential as an intellectual, moral, and economic leader in our society. And it is imperative that you teach boys to support girls and women’s leadership, and do to at least 50% of the housework and childcare. NO EXCUSES, Steve. Our culture teaches boys to be misogynists and Leonard Sax’s work is no help.

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