Prevailing educational thought in the 70’s and 80’s was that educational differences between “girls and boys are ‘socially constructed’—in other words, that those differences result from differences in the way that girls and boys are raised. No serious person back then imagined that there might be innate sex differences in how girls and boys see and hear.” Educational Horizons, 2006, p.1 By the late nineties efforts at reaching all students due to better understandings of the emerging science of understanding and treating learning difficulties led many parents to seek medical solutions to educational frustrations particularly due to classroom attention issues.
As he became inundated with moms seeking a medical treatment for sons who couldn’t sit still in class, pediatrician Dr. Leonard Sax took it upon himself to research the field. His conclusions were published in his 2005 book, called Why Gender Matters. In this book he raised a concern about an increased number of boys not succeeding in traditional schools in addition to being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Dr. Sax documented basic physiological differences in eyes and ears. The eyes are made up with rods and cones that send their signals to the next level of cells which we will simplify as “M Cells” and “P Cells.” “M Cells” tell the brain where it is now and where it is going. “P Cells” tell the brain what it is. Male retinas are dominant with “M Cells” while female retinas are dominant with “P Cells.” Further “M Cells” are sensitive to black, grey, silver and blue while “P Cells” are sensitive to red, orange, green and beige. Thus give a blank paper to kindergartener child and girls will most likely draw things of beauty in red, orange, green and beige while boys will draw more actions in black, grey, silver and blue. Or, as Dr. Sax says, “Girls draw nouns, and boys draw verbs.”
This is true from birth. Dr. Sax cited research in nurseries where one wall had a moving mobile and another showed the face of a female. Graduate students documented the gender of the baby simply by which direction they faced. Boys tended to face the moving object while females faced the human face.
Dr. Sax also commented on differences in hearing. Girls hear low soft tones better than boys. This happens because of physiological differences in the cochlea, where the female’s is shorter, more compact. Typically a girl’s sense of hearing is seven times more acute than that of a teenage boys. In families, that is why teenage girls often complain that their dad is shouting at them while the boy may say he didn’t hear you. It is probably true. Girls are easily distracted by the tapping of a pencil. Boys need loud and clear instructions.
Dr. Sax’ observations from medical science has significant implications in the classroom. If you adjust for the development of the parts of the brain, consider that boys will prefer mechanical functions and moving objects and need loud and clear instruction. Otherwise, the boys will “zone out” especially in a classroom where verbal instruction dominates. Boys get into trouble for fidgeting, not listening and incomplete assignments.
When Dr. Sax compared the decline in achievement with the latest medical/brain research regarding the process of learning among adolescent boys, Dr. Sax concluded that current traditional schools are designed to favor the learning potential of girls. Consequently, Dr. Sax also concluded that boys are best served by a different learning environment, particularly single-gender schools, which can amount to increased levels of academic success for boys. See Dr. Sax’s research in single gender public education: http://www.singlesexschools.org/home-leonardsax.htm
We are grateful, at Damien High School, to have learned much from the work of Dr. Sax as well as the International Boys’ Schools Coalition in gathering much of the research about how boys learn best, and we are dedicated to making this the hallmark of our campus in La Verne.
Merritt Hemenway, Ph.D. Principal, Damien High School
Six Degrees of Separation: What Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, Leonard Sax, Educational Horizons, 84:190-212, Spring 2006
Why Gender Matters, Leonard Sax, 2005