Girls’ Learning Styles

When the second wave of American feminism began in the late 1960s, most researchers in gender studies believed that all babies are born without gender-specific behaviors. Gender differences came about because parents and other adults treated girl babies differently than boy babies. A typical scientific study was one that had a researcher take a video of an adult with a baby. If the baby were dressed in pink, the adult would cuddle and coo. If the same baby were dressed in blue, the adult would play “rough house.” These studies “proved” all gender differences were learned.

However, later research indicated that some differences were the result of nature. For example, most toddler girls no matter what their culture or country enjoys playing with dolls and staying near their mothers, but little boys that same age tend to play in a large territory.

Recently medical scientists have been able to study the physical differences between female and male brains. When mental resonance imaging machines were hooked up to students taking SAT tests, it was noted that women actually process information differently than men.

Women’s brains are smaller but have more connections between the two hemispheres. The area between the hemispheres, called the corpus callosum, is larger and more developed in females and allows the two parts to work together more easily. Thought and emotion may combine in female brain function because of a more active limbic system. The limbic system controls emotions. Men tend to use only one brain hemisphere at a time, but women employ “whole-brain” thinking.

Boys and girls may learn better when physical differences are taken into account. For example, girls hear two to four times better than boys. This may explain why boys seated in the back of the class cannot pay attention to.

Because girls use the language section of their brains when they process math, they may learn math more easily if their teacher uses practical applications and “story problems.” These techniques only slow boys down.

Girls like “context” to their learning. Because of their superior language skills, they like learning through narrative. They want to know why Beethoven composed a certain piece and where he was when he wrote it. Boys just want to play the song.

Women are capable of understanding complex human relationships and how they fit together in emotional context and psychological systems. This may partly explain why most girls prefer fiction. On the other hand, boys prefer non-fiction and especially like to read about how things operate.

Dr. Carol Gilligan at Harvard University came up with the theory that a female’s more complex, emotional way of thinking is detrimental in co-educational classes. Her theory may explain why even smart girls feel stupid, incompetent, and inadequate in school. Girls may have to suppress their natural way of problem-solving to fit into a male mold that is considered not only different but superior to their way of thinking.

Dr. Gilligan writes about a class given the moral problem of whether a man too poor to buy medicine for his dying wife should steal it. High school boys frame the issue almost as if it were a math problem. They calculate the number of extra days the wife would live if she took the medicine. They ask if stealing the medicine is a felony or misdemeanor and what the legal penalty is for each. They add up the money lost in salary if the man goes to jail.

On the other hand, the girls’ analysis of this problem is much more complex and creative. They think in terms of a series of interconnected human stories and consider both the relationships and values of each person involved. They weigh the emotional consequences for each family member if the father goes to jail or if the mother dies. They want to know if the druggist is the kind of person open to negotiation.

In an all-girls’ school, girls are free to think more naturally and openly because the class and teaching style is designed for them. They don’t feel dumb asking their teachers to explain material in a female-friendly way. This is probably why more students from all-girls’ schools take higher-level courses in math and science and perform better on standardized tests than their counterparts in coeducational schools.


American Association of University Women. How Schools Shortchange Girls. Published by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation and Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992.

Begley, Sharon, “How Men and Women’s Brains Differ,” Newsweek, Volume 125, Issue 3, Page 48.

“Benefits of Attending a Girls’ School.” The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, 2004. Posted at http://www.ncgs.org/type0.php?pid=16

Hammer, Trudy. The Gender Gap in Schools. Springfield , NJ : Enslow Publishers, Inc. 1996.

Sadker, Myra and David. Failing at Fairness. New York : Charles Scribner, 1994.

“What are some differences in how boys and girls learn?” The National Association for Same Sex Education, Posted at http://www.singlesexschools.org


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