Coffee Break: Sexes Differ in How They Learn


By Kate Rogers, Special to the Independent

PTA’s Coffee Break speaker Michael Gurian’s topic of gender differences provoked many “a ha” moments for the audience during the school year’s final workshop, which was held last month.

Gurian, co-founder of the Gurian Institute, focused on describing differences that are based on “nature” vs. “nurture.” While nature-based differences in gender roles are universal across cultures, nurture-based differences are culturally dependent and taught.  Gurian cautioned that all of his statements on gender differences are demonstrable in 80 percent of the population.

According to Gurian, the first step of gender differentiation occurs at the moment of conception, when a fetus has either an extra X or a Y chromosome.  For boys, at five weeks the mother’s body is stimulated by the Y chromosome to release a bath of testosterone at a level 10-20 times the amount present for girls.  This reformats the male brain, where words are processed only on the left side, while girls’ brains encode verbally on both sides.   The male brain is stimulated by visual graphics, important when engaging boys in learning. Boys relate through objects and movement, and even boys’ eyes are more sensitive to movement, Gurian said.

Within any class of 25, one would find four to five boys whose brains would not function as well within a  more verbally oriented system. Boys gain from physical and spatial stimulation, which would be ideal if it could be integrated in the classroom. (This is why boys are mesmerized by video games.)

Gurian emphasized that lessons can take a different approach that considers visual learners. Instead of an assignment to write about summer vacation, changing the task to creating a “story board” allows boys to access their experiences and translate them verbally after they summon their visual images.   Other methods that could help boys improve classroom performance are to provide regular opportunities for physical activity, either through breaks or tools developed for special education.  Gurian’s point was that these accommodations are appropriate for boys beyond the tightly defined subgroup of special education.

Gurian showed a short piece created by the Gurian Institute, which had some troubling statistics: boys dominate statistics as recipients of D’s and F’s, those with “learning disabilities,” and mental retardation. Nationally, 16.2% of boys do not graduate from high school. There were more gruesome statistics about the percentage of prisoners who were male.  And on it went.

Gurian said understanding the way the male brain is stimulated allows teachers to modify their methods to reach the learning style of boys.

Gurian also spoke about the impact of the female hormone oxytocin in the social dynamic of the adolescent girl.  When girls are stressed, their levels of this “tend and befriend” hormone go up.  This causes intense bonding among younger girls, particularly around puberty. Boundaries blur.  But when the bonds strain and break, the reactions are extreme.  Oxytocin also plays a role in males too.  It goes up in males when they are involved in mating, but falls back down to typically lower male levels afterwards.  Hence, girls are easily confused by their boyfriend’s reactions after they have been intimate.  They remain extremely bonded while the boys seemingly move on with little sense of the bond.

Gurian offered some thought-provoking ideas, and many parents left wondering how schools could better integrate an understanding of the mechanics of gender differences into Laguna’s schools. The conversation has begun; it will be interesting to see where it leads.

Kate Rogers is a Laguna Beach parent.

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