It is news to no one that men and women are different. We just are. Our bodies are obviously different; our behavior is different, and, as it turns out, our brains are different too. And if our brains are different, then we might even speculate that how we learn and think about new information might be different as well. But how exactly? This, of course, is the perplexing bit.
For those involved in the debate-and make no mistake, there is a far-reaching debate-the real question is how might a clearer understanding of how men’s and women’s brain differ affect the way we live as a society? There are those who believe that a better understanding could lead to changes in such areas of life as health care, law and education.
The search for brain differences is nothing new; the modern (and more sophisticated) version of this idea has been with us at least since the 1960s, when researchers first discovered that a part of the hypothalamus called the preoptic area, was substantially larger in males than females. Since then, more differences have been found in the topographies of the male and female brain. The search for such variability between the male and female brain has stepped up in the last fifteen years, as imaging technology has made the pursuit easier.
In the 1990s-the Decade of the Brain-results streamed in from every quarter about brain differences. In one of many such studies, University of Cincinnati Medical Center neurologist Dr. Gabrielle de Courten-Myers found in 1999 that men have more neurons in the cerebral cortex and women have more of something called neuropil, a substance containing the structures necessary for cell-to-cell communication.
But what do we make of these and other brain differences?
The truth is, it is hard to say. These differences are morphological, or structural, and just about everyone admits that one of the real mysteries of the brain is in understanding the relationship between morphology and function.
De Courten-Myers, who enthusiastically believes these findings must indicate functional differences, admits that it is difficult to extrapolate from one to the other, “even though,” she says, “the two are connected.”
“During the learning process, we often find girls using words as they learn, and boys often working silently.”
Dr. Godfrey Pearlson, professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Behavior Science & Mental Hygiene at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and director of the Division of Psychiatric Neuro-Imaging, has found in an ongoing serious of studies that a part of the brain, the inferior parietal lobe, is generally larger in male brains after other factors are adjusted for. As it happens, the inferior parietal lobe is involved in spatial and mathematical reasoning, skills at which boys tend to perform better than girls.
Is this proof somehow that boys are wired for these tasks and girls are not? We must be careful in jumping to conclusions, says Pearson; what we’re seeing are differences between groups of males and females, not between individuals. Individual girls and boys vary-sometimes wildly-from one to the next.. To wit, we could not choose a random boy and girl out of a hat and expect that the boy would be better at spatial tasks and the girl better at verbal tasks.
“Population differences, while real are of no use whatsoever in characterizing a given male or female,” says Dr. Paul Grobstein, professor of neurobiology at Bryn Mawr College. “For any particular measure, a given male may be more ‘male-like’ or more ‘female-like’ than a given female.”
Actress Jane Fonda recently handed over $12.5 million to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the creation of the Harvard Center on Gender and Education. With an inter-disciplinary research focus concerned with gender and education worldwide, the center will build on the work of Carol Gilligan, the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Gender Studies at Harvard, who has researched the way gender affects girls and women. “It’s taken me a very long time to see the impact gender roles have had on my life,” Fonda explained to the Harvard University Gazette. “And if I, as a privileged, white, aging movie star, have had to wait this long, I can’t even imagine what young women who are less fortunate than I am have had to deal with.”
There are other teachers and educators who also believe that gender affects the way we learn and that this is an area worth exploring. Michael Gurian, in his new book Boys and Girls Learn Differently! proposes that educators should take advantage of the differences between boys and girls in ways that accommodate for those differences.
Gurian identifies ten areas in which boys and girls differ in behavior and, he says, in brain function, including spatial reasoning and language. “Boys tend to be better than girls at being able to calculate something without seeing or touching it,” says Gurian. And on language, Gurian claims that females produce more words than males. “During the learning process,” he says, “we often find girls using words as they learn, and boys often working silently.” Gurian, who has written a number of books about the development of boys, including The Wonder of Boys, sees his book as a tool for balancing the inequities between boys and girls. “I’m talking about teaching each brain the way it needs to learn,” he says. “Not only is there no danger in this, but in fact we’ll accomplish gender equity. And gender equity is accomplished when every individual is trained according to how their brain thinks. Through this, we can help a particular brain with its deficiency.”
In conjunction with the University of Missouri, Kansas City, Gurian created an institute in 1999 in his name that, for two years, trained teachers and administrators from six schools in the greater Kansas City area to focus on gender. Some of these school districts are singing the praises of the teacher education.
“We are trying to accommodate the brain now,” says Debbie Murphy, principal of Edison Elementary in St. Joseph, Missouri, whose school underwent training with the Gurian Institute. She says the Institute has had an enormous impact, both on her school and on the way she deals with students personally. After learning that boys, being more active, need to be doing something all the time, Murphy says she has changed how she approaches discipline,
“When I have guys come down for some emotionally charged discipline conference, I no longer have a conversation with them without having them do something else. For instance, we’ll take a walk together and talk. Or I’ll put out paper and crayons for them.”
“Boys hate to make eye contact when they’re being disciplined,” says Deborah Mulligan, a primary school teacher in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, and a frequent guest on the local Australian Broadcasting Company radio morning talk show. “Yet what’s the first thing female teachers say?: ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you! Stop fidgeting and listen!'”
Mulligan says that one of the many differences she sees is in the way children listen. When she reads to her students or plays an audio tape, she says, “girls will sit passively and listen.” Boys, on the other hand, “like to draw while they’re listening.”
“I know the boys are listening,” she says, “because I quiz them afterward.”
De Courtin-Myers would like to take the research out of the lab and put it into the classroom. “I think that it would make sense to build on those areas in which boys and girls differ on psychometric tests,” she says. “Learning success may be significantly enhanced when using strategies that match each gender’s natural strength rather than imposing a learning style that may be contrary. For example, to find a specific location, it may be fully adequate to give a map to boys while girls may benefit from additional verbal information. After all, if male rats use different strategies to navigate a maze than female rats, why not humans?”
But not all researchers agree the classroom should be divided along gender lines.
“A properly functioning educational system holds open to individuals the possibility and the opportunity of becoming different from what they are,” says Grobstein. “It is not a good idea to design educational systems for women or men which ‘play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses’, because the goal of education ought to be transformation, perhaps even self-transcendence. One outcome of educational systems which recognize the importance of transformation may well be to lessen some of the existing differences (both real and perceived) between women and men and, over the longer run, to alter as well cultural expectations which contribute to those differences.”