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What the Research Says About Gender Differences in Learning

written by: Shelia Odak • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 9/22/2015

Gender differences in learning styles is an important topic in education, and one that draws heated debate. Many teachers and researchers make a powerful case that educators should acknowledge and accommodate these inherent differences between boys and girls.

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    Are Boys and Girls Different in the Classroom?

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    Are there gender differences in learning, and if so, how does that influence the educational opportunities our schools provide boys and girls? The research on the subject is mixed, but because of real or perceived sex-based differences in learning, gender separate education and modifying teaching to fit different learning styles is becoming a powerful trend in today's schools.

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    Differences in Brain Development

    Dr. Leonard Sax is one of the leading proponents for gender separate education and the author of one of the seminal texts on the subject, Why Gender Matters. In an article for Education.com entitled Gender Differences in the Sequence of Brain Development, Dr. Sax cites a study on brain development in children conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This study supports the idea of dramatic differences in brain development between boys and girls. This difference causes boys and girls to react differently to instructions in the classroom. Sax feels that grouping children and educating them by age rather than by gender does not work because the brains of boys are less mature than the brains of girls who are the same age.

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    Disadvantages to Girls

    Research shows that girls also suffer because of disparities in learning styles. Girls need encouragement in education and need to feel accepted. When lowered expectations are placed on what girls can learn and in which subjects they will excel, their learning can be adversely influenced. An article for Education Week by Sean Cavanagh titled American Culture Seen to Thwart Girls’ Math Development explains how expectations regarding girls’ learning styles and abilities in the subject of math are keeping American females from excelling in this subject. When teachers expect the boys in a class to be better at math than the girls, and do not give the girls the encouragement they need, boys do achieve the higher scores.

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    Disadvantages to Boys

    The focus of gender differences in learning has centered on how this difference adversely affects boys in the classroom. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of the book Raising Cain states that "[F]or the average boy, school is not as good a fit as it is for the average girl.” He explains that because of their need to be physically active, boys get in more trouble than girls. Also, their learning styles need to be more physical, which is not the case in the average classroom. All of this leads to higher drop out rates among boys and more of a tendency to be labeled as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

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    Is Gender Separate Education the Solution?

    While private schools have often turned to gender separate education, this option is being seen in more public schools. A New York Times article on single-sex public schools called “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately” explains that some advocates of this type of education say it is needed because of intrinsic gender difference and learning styles, while others cite differing social needs and experiences as the basis for needing separate classrooms. The biggest detractor of gender separate education is the ACLU which sees the separation as discrimination on the basis of sex and thus setting up inequality between the education of boys and girls. However, the conclusions of research on the subject have produced no definitive results. The New York Times articles cites a 2005 research study by the United States Department of Education and the American Institute for Research. The study showed that in 40 usable studies on the subject “41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or coed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other) and 8 percent favored coed schools.”

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    Personal Experience

    Before becoming a teacher at a gender separate school, I was not an advocate for this type of education. However, I can say that while teaching there I saw a distinct and positive difference between sex-separate classes and those that were co-ed. During my tenure at this school, I taught both boys’ and girls’ classes, as well as an AP course that was co-ed. The gender separate classes were consistently more productive, even though the AP courses contained the most academically gifted students. In the gender separate classes, the students were more likely to participate in class discussion, were more likely to enthusiastically embrace creative assignments, and were more willing to risk being wrong in front of myself and their peers.

    As a teacher, it was easier to get to know my students in this type of environment. It also gave some of the quieter students, both boys and girls, an opportunity to find ways to shine. While research on gender difference in learning is mixed, as a teacher I can say that when gender-based learning styles are accepted and accommodated, the students do better and become more confident learners.