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Boys Learn Differently Than Girls

Dogwood Elementary School student Tony Mendez sits at a table in class with a bunch of brightly colored and differently shaped blocks.

Tony layers one color on top of another, resulting in a teepee-like tower. Nearby, a girl sitting at the same table uses her blocks to create a pattern that resembles a flower.

The idea behind the exercise is to use the blocks to teach the children to recognize patterns, an ability that will then be applied to math and English lessons. The creations also provide insight into the different ways boys and girls learn.

"From the early ages, boys demonstrate a greater abstract reasoning, which is an asset with reading maps and things, but it doesn't help with writing or following oral directions," said Lillian Garrity, language arts specialist with the Office of High School Instruction and K-12 Curriculum Services for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). "Boys tend to be very action-oriented learners."

RESEARCH CONDUCTED BY FCPS staffers was based on existing books and published articles, and credits Michael Gurian and William Pollack as the most frequently cited expert sources for the various writings. Gurian is a social philosopher, family therapist, educator and co-founder of The Gurian Institute, as well as author of several books, according to his biography. Pollack, who holds a Ph.D., is also an author as well as the director of the Centers for Men and Young Men, director of Continuing Education (psychology) at McLean Hospital (an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital) and an assistant clinical professor (psychology) in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, according to his biography.

What the various writings concluded was there are physiological differences between boys and girls that translate into different styles of learning. The research found that in boys, the region at the base of brain and brain stem appears to engage more quickly, which probably results in a quicker response in a physical environment. In addition, the cerebral cortex tends to be thicker in males on the right side of the brain, making males more right-brain-dominant. The right hemisphere of the brain supports abstract problem solving, which means males tend to be better at spatial relationships.

On the other hand, the cerebellum in girls has stronger connecting pathways, resulting in superior language and fine-motor skills. Girls also tend to have a greater ability to coordinate the two sides of the brain, because the area that connects the two is larger. The frontal lobe in females tends to be more active, which helps in communication skills; and the temporal lobe, which affects memory storage, has stronger connections in females, which also reinforces superior language skills in girls.

"We did find there are significant differences in how the brains behave," said Judith Matlock, coordinator, high-school Standards of Learning (SOL), training and remediation with FCPS. "The outcomes, as shown in the SOLs, are dramatic."

Matlock said that according to the SOL scores, on average, boys outscore girls in science at the elementary level, but the results tend to even out in high school. Boys also tend to do better in social studies at all grade levels. Math scores, however, tend to be mixed, with boys doing better at some grade levels and courses, and girls doing better at others. Girls significantly outscore boys in language arts at all grade levels.

SO WHAT does all this mean? The research shows that at the elementary level boys tend to need more space when they learn, do not follow oral directions as accurately, are action-oriented learners and have a greater capacity for abstract reasoning. At the secondary level, they are three times more likely to have learning and reading disability placements, to demonstrate low interest in reading fiction, and to achieve better in group situations and discussions rather than from lectures.

"Boys do need space. We have 20 acres for them to run around," said Alvaro de Vicente, headmaster of The Heights School in Potomac, Md., one of the few all-boy schools in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. "They need to get out there and throw a football now and then, to explore and run around. They have a great imagination, a sense of adventure and a lot of energy. They need to be able to use them and then get back into the classroom."

The Heights is a private school that teaches grades three through 12 and also has an all-male faculty, which de Vicente says helps the boys concentrate more on their academics.

"Students, especially in high school, don't remember content. They remember people. They remember the interaction and learn from that," de Vicente said.

Garrity said national studies suggest boys do better academically when they are permitted to move around between lessons, work in groups, have access to technology and have assessments other than the traditional "paper and pencil way."

"At the elementary-school level, teachers need to consider the reading readiness of the students, and for the boys, the idea that school is connected to the real world," Garrity said.

Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent for Instructional Services with FCPS, said research is mixed on whether single-sex schools are a better academic environment for boys.

"What we find is opinions," Sprague said. "What we were looking for were studies that have basis. What we found were beliefs."

De Vicente said at The Heights the boys do well academically. "It works for us. We emphasize a liberal arts education and abstract reasoning quite a bit," he said.

Sprague said that as far as Fairfax County is concerned, the school system as a whole has just started researching the differences in how boys and girls learn.

"What we really need to do is get it out there. We really need to reinforce there is more than one way to teach," Sprague said.

Some of the best practices suggested by the FCPS staff include the use of math manipulatives; hands-on science experimentation; using maps, globes charts and graphs in social studies; incorporating technology such as the Internet, computers and faxes; using visual formats for presentations; including nonfiction reading materials; providing competitive activities including role-playing, simulations, models and mock trials; and supporting exercise for the development of cognitive skills in physical education.