How Boys and Girls Learn Differently

You may be surprised to learn that 80 percent of all high school dropouts are boys. What is more, boys comprise fewer than 50 percent of the current college population. Is this a new phenomenon?

Some experts say that traditional industrial education – the “sit down, be quiet and learn” approach – a system in place for decades and far more suitable to female learning, has been failing boys for a long time. Ask any man if he liked school during his elementary, middle, or high school years, and chances are, he’ll say no. But years ago, whether or not a boy liked school, he was generally forced to perform because of a strict authoritarian system that was in place to support the educational system. If a boy failed to pay attention or acted out, a teacher or principal could punish him – even by physical means.

Many of today’s boys dislike school as much as yesterday’s boys, but the authority system that “kept them inline” in the past is gone, leaving boys freer to tune out – and more likely to drop out.

While clearly, the answer is not to resort back to physical punishment to enforce learning, the question of how to engage boys in education from preschool through secondary school graduation is only beginning to be addressed. And according to many, the way to help boys learn is to develop educational methods that appeal to a boy’s unique learning style. Some educators believe that a boy’s learning is best served in single-sex classrooms.

To understand how boys and girls learn differently, you need to know how physiological, social, and brain differences affect how children learn.

Boys don’t hear as well as girls do

Research shows that girls can hear sounds much softer than those heard by boys. Therefore, boys in the back row may not hear a soft-spoken female teacher.

Boys tend to overestimate their abilities

While girls are critical of their performance, boys tend to believe their performance is brilliant, even if it is not. This means that boys must be challenged externally to improve performance.

Boys develop language skills later than girls do

Reading and writing may be more difficult for boys in early elementary years than for girls. And story problems in math are more difficult for boys to decipher, because not only must they do the math, but they must also grapple with language skills to do so.

Boys develop fine motor skills later than girls do

Even the task of gripping a pencil properly or cutting things out with scissors is more difficult for young boys.

Boys’ brains go into a rest state many times a day

Girls’ brains are more active than those of boys, so they are less likely to zone out during the day. Boys perform better when moving.

Boys learn best in “master-apprentice” relationships

From the beginning of time, boys have learned one on one at the hand of a male figure. They do not learn as well with 30 kids to one teacher.

Emotional activity is processed differently in boys’ brains

The brain activity related to emotion is processed in the same area of the brain involved with the reasoning in older (adolescent) girls. But in boys, brain activity related to emotion has no connection with the area of the brain involved with reasoning. This means that books with storylines involving a character’s feelings do not generally interest boys. Boys prefer non-fiction; they like to read about real events or about how things work. In fiction books, boys want stories with exciting characters and lots of adventure.

Boys develop spatial memory earlier than girls

In other words, boys can more easily record information about the environment and the position of objects in the environment.

Boys are kinesthetic learners

Boys learn by using gross motor skills, manipulating, and moving things to learn.

Reading through this list, it becomes obvious that educational efforts targeted toward a female style of learning will not be appropriate for boys. This doesn’t mean that boys are incapable of learning the same things – but just that they need to be taught differently.

Some educators who are aware of these differences in learning believe that boys are best served in single-sex schools or at least single-sex classrooms. Here, boys can use gross motor skills, move around, manipulate things, read what interests them, and learn math without having to decipher the story behind the math. Research is beginning to show that boys in those schools with single-sex education remain interested – even excited – by learning, and perform better both academically and behaviorally.


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