The New Gender Gap
Why are so many boys floundering while so many girls are soaring?
Picture a student in your class who is really struggling with reading and writing. This student doesn´t like to read, has difficulty sitting still and paying attention, and turns in crumpled, half-completed homework. We´ve all had students like this. But chances are, as you picture this child in your mind, you are thinking of one of the boys in your class.
More and more media reports are indicating that boys are slipping behind girls on almost all academic milestones. The latest NAEP writing tests (July, 2003) show boys scoring an average 24 points lower than girls. The results also reveal how crucial the early years of school are in laying the foundation for this discrepancy, because a full 75 percent of this gap can already be measured in fourth grade.
By the fourth grade, the average boy is developmentally two years behind the average girl in reading and writing. Boys make up 70 percent of special education classes and are as much as four times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And the gap is still significant in the college-aged population: For every 100 young men earning BAs, 133 young women do.
It is an alarming trend that is gaining wide attention in the PTA, in college admission offices, and in the business world. An article in BusinessWeek magazine (May 26, 2003) argues that boys from kindergarten to graduate school are becoming the "second sex." "It´s not just that boys are falling behind girls," says educator Dr. William Pollack. "It´s that boys themselves are falling behind their own functioning and doing worse than they did before."
Clearly, an alarm has been raised. But with a complex subject like gender and achievement it is difficult to identify where the problem begins. Societal expectations, long-held stereotypes, and myths about gender complicate any conversation we want to have as educators about the performance of boys and girls in our classrooms and how to help them all succeed. What we do know is that brain-based gender differences is one of the important factors at work.
Teachers know that boys and girls arrive at school with a range of different developmental strengths and weakness. Speaking generally, girls and boys seem to use different parts of their brain effectively, each gender with some stronger left-hemisphere capacities and some stronger right-hemisphere capacities. "Sex hormones may sculpt our brains as well as our bodies," says researcher Geoffrey Cowley, preparing and "priming males and females for different styles of thought." These differences are significant and effect how and when children learn.
Research tells us that the way young boys and girls use their left and right hemispheres is markedly different. In short, many girls have an advantage by being able to use their left-hemisphere strengths in the early grades with speaking, reading, and writing. The right-hemisphere strengths of girls enable them to feel empathy and to better understand and reflect the feelings of their teachers and peers.
On the other hand, boys tend to have an advantage in their left hemisphere by being able to recall facts and rules and categorize. Their right-brain strengths encompass visual- spatial and visual-motor skills, which enable boys to excel in topics like geography, science, and math. This is, of course, not to say that some girls don´t construct better bridges, or that no boys outread even the most bookish of their girl classmates. Rather, these are areas of general gender strengths and weaknesses.
Boys as Elementary Outsiders
Many researchers believe that in spite of their many intellectual strengths, boys as a group are at a definite disadvantage in the typical early elementary school curriculum. Most school curricula emphasize the left-brain cognitive skills of speaking, reading, and writing abilities, which usually develop at a slower rate in boys. Starting at the kindergarten and first-grade levels, boys are expected to perform to a standard that favors the girls. They are expected to sit still, speak articulately, write the alphabet legibly, work in groups, color between the lines, and be neat and organized.
Equally important, the emotional climate of the classroom seems to favor the skills of girls over boys. Researchers such as M. Kindlon and D. Thompson (Raising Cain) argue that boys lose out when they are not encouraged to understand and accept their emotions, a skill that is typically encouraged in girls. Consequently, boys appear less able to cope with their negative feelings of sadness, frustration, and anger, and to understand similar feelings in others.
Dr. William Pollack has written extensively about the “Boy Code,” an unwritten list of societal expectations of how boys should act. Boys learn this unspoken code everywhere-from their parents, teachers, coaches, and peers. The rules of the Boy Code require boys to not show their true feelings, to act tough, and above all else to be “cool.” In the classroom, this silent code gets boys into trouble, because they are less likely to let teachers know when they are having difficulty, feeling frustrated, or just plain not getting it. Instead, they may express their feelings in the only way they know how: They fidget, get distracted, and ultimately-they get reprimanded.
All too often, boys who have repeated difficulties in the classroom begin to believe that they do not measure up either socially or academically. They start to believe that they are “bad,” and that school is not a fun place to be. Dr. Pollack has found that many boys are developing low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety in their early years, before they have had a chance to discover their strengths.
Helping Boys Succeed—What Teachers Can Do
It is becoming clear to researchers that the egalitarian classroom model-teach everyone the same-doesn´t serve all students. Our challenge as teachers is to try to reach all our students-boys and girls-by varying our instruction methods in ways that can reach all learners. Here are some ways to support boy (and girl) learners in the classroom:
Tap into visual spatial strengths. Tie building with Legos, blocks, and Lincoln Logs into math lessons. In language arts, have children map their own filmstrip predictions of the book´s ending.
Allow time for movement. Highly active children, especially boys, may need brief breaks built into the day to stand up, stretch, and walk around. Build physical movement into lessons when possible. For example, when teaching a lesson on punctuation, let the whole class stand up and act out a period, a question mark, an exclamation point, or a semicolon.
Use hands-on materials. Allow children the opportunity to show their learning in other ways besides writing. Jennifer Muse, a kindergarten teacher in Bedford, Massachusetts, recalls a lesson in which she was teaching her students to write the letters. One little boy complained, “Ms. Muse, I don´t want to write the letters, I want to make them.” Later, following his lead, they used modeling clay to form the letters of the alphabet. This is a perfect example of teaching with boys in mind.
Incorporate technology. Increasing the use of computer-based education helps to engage the attention of boys at all grade levels, say many researchers. Computer learning games, Internet research time, and cyberhunts all have special appeal.
Provide male role models. Throughout the elementary years, most boys attend school in a largely female environment, as most teachers are female. Invite fathers into the classroom, as well as male guest speakers, such as authors or community figures, to help balance the female influence. High school boys might be a good source of tutoring for some of your struggling boy students.
Allow opportunities for competition. Some students truly thrive on the energy of intellectual competition. Occasional studying contests, spelling bees, geography bees, math competitions, and brainteasers can be a wonderful spark for learning.
Choose books that appeal to boys. Reading more nonfiction in the classroom is a sure way to capture boys´ interest. They tend to prefer books filled with interesting facts and information. Follow their interests. If earthquakes are a success, move on to tidal waves.
Above all, create a supportive classroom environment. All children need to feel psychologically safe in school. Teachers can make the classroom a safety zone for boys where they can be themselves without putting up a false front. The Boy Code rules need not apply in the classroom setting. Teachers can set an atmosphere of respect that encourages boys to let their feelings show, to feel safe to make mistakes, and to understand that each and every student is there to learn at his or her own pace, in his or own style.
Diane Connell, Ed.D. (email@example.com) is an associate professor at Rivier College, in Nashua, NH. Betsy Gunzelmann, Ed.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor at Southern New Hampshire University, in Manchester, NH. This article was originally published in the March 2004 issue of