Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents


In this profoundly significant book, author Michael Gurian synthesizes this current knowledge and clearly demonstrates how this distinction in hard-wiring and socialized gender differences affects how boys and girls learn. Gurian presents a new way to educate our children based on brain science, neurological development, and chemical and hormonal disparities.

Boys and Girls Learn Differently! provides guidelines for brain-based innovations that will motivate and ...

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In this profoundly significant book, author Michael Gurian synthesizes this current knowledge and clearly demonstrates how this distinction in hard-wiring and socialized gender differences affects how boys and girls learn. Gurian presents a new way to educate our children based on brain science, neurological development, and chemical and hormonal disparities.

Boys and Girls Learn Differently! provides guidelines for brain-based innovations that will motivate and inspire everyone - teachers, parents, policymakers, and caretakers - interested in educating kids. This book shows why we must change our classroom strategy, and makes specific suggestions for new techniques that will provide equal educational opportunities, customized for gender difference.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Educator and author Gurian (The Wonder of Boys) and his co-writers argue that from preschool to high school, brain differences between the sexes call for different teaching strategies. While it's widely accepted that, in general, boys do better in math and girls in language, the authors claim that, until recently, society has taken the politically correct but scientifically inaccurate classroom view that children of both genders learn best in an "androgynous classroom." Presenting a detailed picture of boys' and girls' neurological, chemical and hormonal disparities, the authors explain how those differences affect learning. Although Gurian et al. address the problems of both genders, they focus on boys, contending that they are more difficult to teach and have more learning and discipline problems. The female brain, Gurian says, has a "learning advantage" because it is more complex and active, although the male brain does excel at abstract thinking and spatial relations, one reason why boys do better in math. Drawing on anecdotes contributed by teachers participating in a Missouri-based pilot program launched by the Michael Gurian Institute, the authors present a variety of methods, from pairing a language activity with movement for boys, to using role models to engage girls in academic risk taking. Throughout, the authors stress the importance of teacher training, arguing that regrettably few teachers are knowledgeable about this issue. (Apr.) Forecast: With a seven-city author tour to spark media interest and follows the huge success of The Wonder of Boys, this book will be picked up by parents eager to learn more of what Gurian has to say. Most Americans are intensely concerned about the state of our educational system, so the book could reach beyond its target readership of teachers and parents. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Referring to the psychological theories on differences in how boys and girls think and behave, the authors (all three are educators; Gurian is also a family therapist and author) have created a guideline for educators to teach and create classroom settings that acknowledge these differences. Readers are first instructed in the physical characteristics of the brain, the gender-based differences in the brain, and how these affect learning. The remainder of the volume describes how to create a positive classroom environment from day care and preschool through high school with topics including bonding and attachment, how to provide discipline, how to deal with extreme behavior, and special education. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560152583
  • Publisher: Penton Overseas, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: 3 CDs
  • Product dimensions: 5.66 (w) x 6.26 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Gurian (Spokane, WA) is an educator, family therapist, and author of fourteen books, including the bestselling Wonder of Boys, A Fine Young Man, and The Good Son. He is an internationally celebrated speaker and writer whose work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, and other national publications as well as on the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, and numerous other broadcast media.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

How the Brain Learns

Inherent Differences Between Boys and Girls

Boys and girls are different, and that's the truth. When I was a young teacher this thing started of saying they weren't different, and I kept my mouth shut, but I raised three kids of my own and I taught hundreds and I just didn't believe what I was hearing. Now I'm so glad we're all talking about the differences between boys and girls again.


NANCY LYNN TAUGHT NEARLY EVERY GRADE IN HER THIRTY-EIGHT-YEAR career. We met her when she was a "retired" volunteer ("I'm retired but busier at school than ever!"), providing reading tutorials and coteaching learning disability classes. She was a small, thin woman of sixty-nine whom the kids called "Mrs. Lynn," never "Nancy." Though tiny in stature, she commanded respect, and she moved among her students with grace and confidence.

    She spoke the words with which this chapter begins at a teacher training. "I'm not too old to keep learning," she told us. Nancy was a kind of leader at the training. She told us some poignant stories.

    She told us about a boy who just couldn't sit still. To help him stop getting in trouble constantly for his fidgeting, she decided to ask him to run errands for her. This gave him something to do. She told us about another boy whom she could barely manage in fourth grade. He was overly aggressive and often angry. One day on the playground, the class discovered a dead squirrel. Thisboy bent to the squirrel, held it a moment, and looked (untypical for him) very tender. Nancy let him hold it; she talked to him and asked him to lead the burial service.

    "He was so different after that day," she recalled. "He felt so bad for the squirrel. I think he understood life better after that and became a better boy. He just needed to see how things really were in the world around him. He needed to see what that aggression, which he sure had a lot of, really does in the world. My role was not just to teach him reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. My job was to help teach the boy in him how to be a good young man."

    She told us about a seventh-grade girl whose father had died during the summer. The gift, very bright, was underachieving. In Nancy's words: "She was just sort of disappearing into herself, not participating anymore, letting her grades fall." Nancy decided one day to drive her home from school herself and try to become close. Nancy ended up becoming a friend of the family and helping the girl not only achieve again but also work through her grief. Nancy was practicing an intuitive, early version of what we now refer to as raising a child's self-esteem and making sure a girl doesn't lose her voice. In Nancy's words, "Sometimes girls are very fragile and need a special kind of attention. Girl attention."

    Coming from someone of so much experience, these stories opened the door to other comments at the training. Some of the parents and teachers who had not wanted to talk strenuously about male-female difference felt more courage to do so.

    "Boys and girls are so different," said a parent of four. "They just come out of the womb that way. I had two of each, and I started out thinking they'd be the same. They weren't."

    "I've taught twenty years," said another teacher, "and if I've learned anything it's that while boys and girls are the same in lots of ways, they are definitely different. Every year I change the way I teach just to accommodate that one fact."

    Parents and teachers like these have seen the whole gamut of changing theories in education. Teachers like Nancy Lynn are a joy to talk to, for many reasons. They carry the very energy and history of our culture in their hearts, minds, and memories, reminding us that education has always held out to us a vast banquet of possibilities. Nancy inspired the workshop by reminding us that educators do not have to limit their thinking to be effective.

    For more than a decade, I have been asking these two questions at teacher trainings and seminars: "When you were being trained to be a teacher, how many of you were offered a class in the actual development of the student's brain?" and "How many of you were offered a class in the developmental differences between the way a boy's brain works and a girl's brain works?"

    Generally, about 10-20 percent of the attendees raise their hands in answer to the first question. To the second, usually no hands go up. As the day of training proceeds, all of us come to agreement that for too many decades, biological information about the development of a child's brain, as well as the crucial differences between male and female brain development, has been fragmentary, incomplete, and sometimes nonexistent. This state of educational training has brought real harm to our educational culture. We are walking into classrooms unprepared to do our jobs. We are putting boys and girls together in classrooms and a system of education that is unprepared to deal with who these children really are.

    In this chapter, we present some of the newest and freshest research into the brain, brain similarities, and male-female brain differences. As you read much of this information, you will probably say to yourself, "Oh yeah, I guess I knew that." But a lot of it will startle you; then, when you sit back and notice the ideas and facts at work among your students, we hope you will say, "A-ha, so that's why such-and-such happens," or "OK, so now I see how to make my classroom even better."

The Wide Spectrum of Gender in the Brain

As you master this material, we hope you will check the research by keeping your own journal of observations. For a month or so, mark down "gender experiences" you see in your classroom, or home, or wherever it is that you are a teacher of children ("Today Jimmy did such-and-such." "Today Heather said something that ..."). A detailed journal generally corroborates most of the brain-based research we lay out in this chapter, and it leads to new insight into how you can interact with these male and female brains.

    At the same time, you will discover many exceptions to what we say. Brain development is best understood as a spectrum of development rather than two poles, female and male. Many of the children you have contact with lean toward the female extreme on their brain development spectrum, many others toward the male. Mainly, your girls lean toward the female and boys toward the male, but you will notice some boys at the female end and some girls at the male. You will also notice a number of "bridge brains." These are boys and girls who possess nearly equal qualities of both the male and female brains. They are, in a sense, the bridge between male and female cultures because their brains are the most "bi-gender."

    The material of this chapter should not be used to stereotype or limit males and females, because each child is an individual. Rather, it should be used to add wisdom to the individuality already assumed in every human. Of course, difference is not evidence of gender superiority or inferiority in general. There are some things boys tend to be better at than girls, and vice versa. There is a skill superiority already built into general male and female brain development. But this in no way means there is an inherent male or female superiority in moral or social terms. Unfortunately, when it was discovered, a hundred years ago, that the male brain was 10 percent larger physically than the female, some neuroscientists of that time proclaimed, "You see, this corroborates what we've said all along: men are smarter than women." Interpretations like this can make all of us a little afraid of saying that boys and girls learn differently because their brains are different.

    Nonetheless, we certainly hope this chapter helps you become fearless in pursuit of the wisdom inherent in brain difference. Camilla Benbow, a researcher at the University of Iowa, has studied more than a million schoolchildren to discover how reliable the early findings on the reality of brain differences really were. She discovered marked, sex-different approaches and attitudes to learning and living between boys and girls for which she initially sought explanation in one or more overriding cultural events or social experiences. Benbow, and most researchers like her, started doing their research twenty years ago, when searching for sociological reasons for male-female difference was the accepted practice. Benbow ended up with this result: "After fifteen years of looking for an environmental explanation and getting zero results, I gave up." The differences, she discovered, were in the brain, with culture playing an important part but not the defining role that many people have wished to believe.

    Other researchers, notably Laurie Allen at UCLA, have discovered actual structural differences in the brain. Still others, such as Ruben Gur at the University of Pennsylvania, have discovered functional differences using positronic emission tomography (PET) scans. Their research has been corroborated all over the world. The best primary text we know of for getting a whole picture (on a worldwide scale) of brain-based gender differences is Brain Sex, by Anne Moir and David Jessel.

    In the end, what all of us in this field have discovered is that once brain difference becomes real for those who teach children, a number of doors to better education open. Let's open some of them now and walk through. True equality of education occurs, we will discover, as each teacher embraces the fact that we need to know more about how the brain in general learns, and how boys' and girls' brains learn differently.

How the Brain Works

How does the brain actually work? Our answer to this question is far more complete than it was two decades ago, but it is a long way from finished. One might just as well attempt to fully describe how the planet works, how our solar system works, or how the universe works, for the brain is no less complex, fascinating, and mysterious than these other things are. In describing and graphically illustrating the workings of the brain, we must leave out more than we put in. For the purposes of this book, we strive to include all the areas where there is, ultimately, some difference between male and female brains.

    Every human brain has one hundred billion neurons (as many cells as there are stars in the Milky Way), and one hundred trillion glial, or connecting, cells. An adult human brain is eight pounds of dense matter in three major layers: the cerebrae cortex at the top; the limbic system in the middle; and the brain stem at the bottom, connecting with the spinal cord. Historically, for more than two million years, the brain has grown from the bottom up, the upper limbic system and the four lobes of the cerebrae cortex (neocortex for short) developing later than the lower limbic and the brain stem.

    In general, the three layers of the brain are known for distinct functions (though all functioning areas of the brain constantly interact). The brain stem is where fight-or-flight responses are harbored. When we're in an immediate crisis, we often feel our instincts take over. It happens in the brain stem. This most primitive part of our brain is essential for our survival.

    Our limbic system is generally where emotion is processed. A sensory stimulant comes into the brain through our eyes, ears, skin, or other organs, and we experience an emotive response to it; the immediate sensual and emotive response resides, to a great extent, in the limbic system in the middle of the brain. Although some aggressive responses are brain-stem responses, others come from the limbic system as well-specifically from the amygdala, which lies at the bottom of the limbic system, just above the brain stem.

    The four lobes at the top of the brain are generally where thinking occur. In each lobe, different sensory stimulants are also processed. Certain cortices in the top of the brain (for instance, the prefrontal cortex) handle the majority of our moral and other decision making. The top of the brain is divided between the left and the right hemisphere. The left is primarily associated with verbal skills—speaking, reading, and writing—and the right is primarily associated with spatial skills, such as measuring, perceiving direction, and working with blocks or other objects.

    When we are teaching a child the higher-order content of a novel, or how to do math, we are generally speaking to the top of the brain, though emotional responses often mix in, especially if the student has an emotional reaction to the content of a book or lesson. In this way, the neocortex and the limbic system work together.

    An example of an emotional reaction is "I feel sympathy for Hester Prynne" or, less obviously, "I can't do this, it's too hard." Either way, the emotive response in the limbic system can slow down or shut off most thinking in the top of the brain, depending on how tough the emotional moment is. In neurological terms, a child who thinks she can't do it might fulfill her own thinking: during the crisis of esteem her blood flow remains heavily in the middle of the brain, not moving up to the thinking centers. When we tell a child to "think before you act," we are actually saying, "Redirect your blood flow from the limbic system, and even from the brain stem, to the top of the brain before you act."

    We may never understand all of the machinations, functions, and potentials of our brain. It is not our purpose here to try. Our goal should be to look at what we do know about how the brain learns and what we are discovering about the important differences in how male and female brains operate. By taking these first, tentative steps toward understanding, we can help our children become comfortably and fully themselves—accepting their differences, celebrating their natural strengths, and aiding them in compensating for their natural weaknesses. Table 1.1 shows the similarities and differences between the male and female brain.

How Boys' and Girls' Minds Are Different

There are a number of categories of male-female difference to consider. We present some of these expositionally, while including two tables by which to make an even deeper comparison. There are many differences we could present, but we have preselected those that seem most essential to learning strategies. You'll find that each category contains mainly highlights of what appears in the tables.

Developmental and Structural Differences

In most cases, and in most aspects of developmental chronology, girls' brains mature earlier than boys'. An example is in the myelination of the brain. One of the last steps in the brain's growth to adulthood occurs as the nerves that spiral around the shaft of other nerves of the brain, like vines around a tree, are coated. This coating is myelin, which allows electrical impulses to travel down a nerve fast and efficiently. A ten-year-old is generally a more developed human than a toddler, and an adult more so than a ten-year-old, in large part because of myelination. Myelination continues in all brains into the early twenties, but in young women it is complete earlier than in young men.

    This is a maturity difference at the tail end of childhood, but the differing maturity occurs at the beginning as well. Girls, for instance, can acquire their complex verbal skills as much as a year earlier than boys. Thus, quite often a preschool gift reads faster and with a larger vocabulary than a peer boy does, and she speaks with better grammar. In general, female brains develop quicker than male brains. Brain development in infants is often most pronounced in the right hemisphere and gradually moves to the left. In females, the movement to the left starts earlier than in males.

    Perhaps the most familiar structural difference in the brain is the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the right and left hemispheres. In females it is up to 20 percent larger than in males, giving girls better cross-talk between the hemispheres of the brain. There is more (and quicker) development in females than males in the prefrontal lobes, where affect regulation finds its executive decision making, and the occipital lobes, where sensory processing often occurs.

    Girls take in more sensory data than boys. On average, they hear better, smell better, and take in more information through fingertips and skin. Females tend often to be better than males at controlling impulsive behavior. They tend to self-monitor high-risk and immoral conduct better than boys (on average)—especially if the boys and the girls are equally untrained in ethics or impulse control. In other words, girls are by nature less likely to take moral risks than boys. Boys are more likely to physically show natural aggression.

    Girls tend to have better verbal abilities and rely heavily on verbal communication; boys tend to rely heavily on nonverbal communication, being innately less able on average to verbalize feelings and responses as quickly as girls. This has immense ramifications in our present culture, which relies so heavily on talk, conversation, words. We are all far better trained at listening to words than at watching silent cues, which often makes communication with a male difficult.

    Males tend to have more development in certain areas of the right hemisphere, which provides them with better spatial abilities such as measuring, mechanical design, and geography and map reading. Lynn S. Liben, of Pennsylvania State University, recently reviewed data from the 1999 National Geography Bee, a geography-based contest hosted by Alex Trebek that has attracted five million participants. Of those millions, forty-five times more boys than girls are likely to be finalists.

    Like many researchers, Liben and the coauthors of her study concluded that although to some extent the boy-girl gap can be accounted for by cultural factors, the lion's share of the gap stems from better cognitive spatials in the male brain. "There really are some differences biologically," she said; "I feel I have to say this as a woman."

Chemical Differences

Males and females have a differing amount of most of the brain chemicals. Perhaps the most telling difference is in how much serotonin each brain secretes. The male brain secretes less than the female, making males impulsive in general, as well as fidgety. Differences in vasopressin and oxytocin are also substantial. For instance, the crying of a child stimulates secretion of oxytocin in the female brain to a far greater degree than in the male brain. Oxytocin is just one of the brain chemicals that, being more constantly stimulated in females, make the female capable of quick and immediate empathic responses to others' pain and needs.

Hormonal Differences

Although males and females both possess all the human hormones, degree of dominance differs. Females are dominated by estrogen and progesterone, males by testosterone. These hormones are contrasting in their effects. Progesterone, for instance, is a female growth hormone and also the bonding hormone. Testosterone is the male growth hormone, and also the sex-drive and aggression hormone.

    Whereas a girl may be likely to bond first and ask questions later, a boy might be aggressive first and asks questions later. A girl is likely to try to manage social bonds in a group situation through egalitarian alliances, but a boy tends to manage social energy through striving for dominance or pecking order.

    Human behavior is far more driven by hormones than we have wanted to admit. Despite the plethora of research on testosterone and premenstrual syndrome, we tend to avoid acknowledging the importance of hormonal differences. Yet male and female mood are very dependent on the interplay of hormones and the brain. Males receive five to seven "spikes" or "surges" of testosterone every day, beginning in pre-puberty (generally around ten years old). During the spiking, hormonal flow can make their moods vacillate between aggressive and withdrawn.

    Female estrogen and progesterone rise and fall with their hormonal cycle, making their moods swing as well. These hormones affect in-class emotive functioning, of course, because of mood, but they also influence learning performance. For instance, when female estrogen is high, a girl scores higher on both standardized and in-class tests than when it is low. When male testosterone is high, the boy performs better on spatial exams, like math tests, but worse on verbal tests.

    There is great variety among boys and girls in their own hormonal levels. Some boys are high-testosterone: very aggressive, socially ambitious, striving for dominance, heavy in muscle mass, or a combination of these conditions. Some boys are low-testosterone, more sensitive, softer in appearance and manner. By adulthood, males can end up with twenty times more testosterone than females, but possibly also only five or six times as much. Female hormone levels vary, of course, with the time of the month and other circumstances (such as hearing a child cry, seeing another person suffer, becoming pregnant, or even competing). When both males and females compete, their testosterone levels go up (females included), but males obviously have a much higher testosterone baseline; this makes males on average more aggressively competitive than females.

Functional Differences

How the brain uses its cell and blood activity differs considerably in males and females. Boys use the right hemisphere more, girls the left. Boys move more emotive material down from the limbic system to the brain stem (where fight-or-flight responses are stored); girls move more of it upward to the upper brain, where complex thought occurs. Ruben Gur, at the University of Pennsylvania, has used PET scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other brain imaging techniques to show that the resting female brain is as active as the activated male brain. In his words, "There is more going on in the female brain." He is not saying it is necessarily superior, but he is showing that the female brain is using its resources, doing so quickly, and often, and in more places in the brain. The female brain, never at rest, has a true learning advantage.

    Quite often a girl's response to a situation is more complex than a boy's. Males tend to manage stimulants with more of what is called "task focus." Because the male brain is not as activated in as many places, it becomes overwhelmed by stimulation more quickly than the female, causing it to decide on the importance of stimulants for their necessity to a task-at-hand. A lot goes untouched by the male brain because it does not attend to those things, preferring to manage stimulation by "sticking to a plan." The advantage in this is a quick, direct route to a goal. A disadvantage is that if the task goes badly or failure emerges, the male has fewer resources to redirect himself.

    Two areas of greater functioning in the female are memory and sensory intake. Comparable greater functioning in the male is in spatial tasks and abstract reasoning. The male brain gives boys the edge in dealing with spatial relationships (such as objects and theorems); the female brain responds more quickly to greater quantities of sensory information, connecting it with the primacy of personal relationships and communication. Cultural factors certainly reinforce these tendencies, but the differences are innate, in brain functioning.

    Some teachers, over the years, discover the power that comes from using their voices appropriately. Because girls and women are able to hear things better than boys and men, sometimes a loud voice is needed for boys. This fact makes an interesting basis for keeping boys near the front of the physical classroom.

    Another intriguing difference applies to teaching music, especially choir. Six times as many girls can sing in tune as boys. Males and females even see things differently, with females generally far better at seeing in a darkened room. On the other hand, males see better than women in bright light. This suggests a biological rationale for how teachers should arrange their students in terms of distance or closeness to visual learning aids.

    The differences between male and female students go beyond just hearing and seeing. Females react acutely and quickly to pain, although their overall resistance to long-term discomfort is stronger than in males. There is even rather strong evidence that males and females taste things differently. Generally, females are sensitive to bitter flavors and prefer high concentrations of sweet things. Males are attracted to salty flavors. The female nose and palate are more sensitive than the male. Interestingly, a superior olfactory sensitivity also increases in males just before females ovulate; and at a critical time of her menstrual cycle, the biology of a woman makes her even more sensitive to a male's biology.

    Gender difference has been noted in the memory ability of males and females. Girls can store, for short periods, a greater quantity of seemingly random information; boys can do this more often if the information is organized into some coherent form or has specific importance to them. Boys can store trivia better than girls for a long period of time.

    Whereas girls fare better at sensory data and varied memory, boys fare better at spatial skills in general. We heard a wonderful example of male-brain spatial development from Jeff Knight, of Balboa Elementary School, an elementary teacher who gave his students a stick figure grid to recopy in three-dimensional space. Nearly all the boys could do it, but many of the girls couldn't. The boys also mastered it more quickly.


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Table of Contents

Introduction ..... 1
Part 1: How Boys and Girls Learn Differently ..... 11
1: How the Brain Learns: Inherent Differences Between Boys and Girls ..... 13
2: How Brain-Based Differences Affect Boys and Girls ..... 43
Part 2: Creating the Ultimate Classroom for Both Boys and Girls ..... 69
3: The Ultimate Preschool and Kindergarten Classroom ..... 73
4: The Ultimate Elementary School Classroom ..... 124
5: The Ultimate Middle School Classroom ..... 201
6: The Ultimate High School Classroom ..... 262
Epilogue ..... 313
Notes ..... 315
Additional Resources ..... 323
The Authors ..... 331
Index ..... 333
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