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Stop Pseudoscience of gender differences in Learning

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In the past decade, we've heard a lot about the innate differences between males and females. So we've come to accept that boys can't focus in a classroom and girls are obsessed with relationships: "That's just the way they're built."In Pink Brain Blue Brain, neuroscientist Lise Eliot turns that thinking on its head. Calling on years of exhaustive research and her own work in the field of neuroplasticity, Eliot argues that infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers���and the culture at large���unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes. Children themselves exacerbate the differences by playing to their modest strengths. They constantly exercise those ���ball-throwing�۝ or ���doll-cuddling�۝ circuits, rarely straying from their comfort zones.

But this, says Eliot, is just what they need to do. And she offers parents and teachers concrete ways to help. Presenting the latest science from conception to puberty, she zeroes in on the precise differences between boys and girls, reining in harmful stereotypes. Boys are not, in fact, ���better at math�۝ but at certain kinds of spatial reasoning. Girls are not naturally more empathetic than boys; just allowed to express their feelings more.
Of course, genes and hormones play a role in creating boy-girl differences, but they are only the beginning. Social factors, such as how we speak to our sons and daughters and whether we encourage their physical adventurousness, are proving to be far more powerful than we previously realized. As a parent, Eliot understands the difficulty of bucking gender expectations, but also the value of doing so.
In an increasingly complex and competitive world, we need our boys to be emotionally intelligent and our girls to be technologically savvy. By appreciating how sex differences emerge���rather than assuming them to be fixed biological facts���we can help all children reach their fullest potential, close the troubling gaps between boys and girls, and ultimately end the gender wars that currently divide us.

"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, ASCD