Collaboratory Read-to-Lead Book Club: Why Gender Matters

Every other month, CTQ Collaboratory members get together for our version of a book club: a series of asynchronous online discussions and a webinar conversation about a book relevant to education.

Our February 2014 book club selection was Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax. Find out what Collaboratory members have to say about the role of gender in their classrooms and schools…

Every other month, CTQ Collaboratory members get together for our version of a book club: a series of asynchronous online discussions and a webinar conversation about a book relevant to education. In April we’ll be reading Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead and talking about how modern day tribes form, who leads them, and how. Join the Collaboratory today and take part in our April book club discussion!

Our February 2014 book club selection was Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax. Below is a summary of the book along with highlights from a group discussion. Bummed you missed our February discussion? Chime in and leave a comment below!

February 2014 Collaboratory Read-to-Lead Book Club Selection

Book: Why Gender Matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences

Author: Dr. Leonard Sax

Ideas from the Book

Nurture vs. nature

While some experts argue that schools should avoid gender-based assumptions, others say that a gender-neutral approach denies biological realities. Dr. Sax, a family-practice physician, posits that biology, rather than environment or conditioned behavior, explains why males and females seem to think, act, and relate to others differently. He argues that gender-neutral child rearing and education practices have damaging effects. This is evidenced by the dramatic increase of children assessed for neurological disorders in the last 20 years.  Diagnoses like attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder are treated with medication in children as young as four, and the majority of them are male. Anti-anxiety and depression medications are more commonly prescribed for girls.

Gender differences and literacy

Girls consistently outperform boys on literacy assessments at all ages. Research cited by Sax indicates that females may have a biological advantage over males due to better hearing, differences in eye structure, and engagement of both brain hemispheres in language processing. Lack on interest can also be a factor since stories featuring heroes, villains, and danger (which boys favor) are often under-represented in classroom literature. Emphasis on literacy in kindergarten could place boys at a physical, intellectual, and social disadvantage, resulting in a lack of engagement and negative feelings about school that persist into high school.

Gender differences and STEM

Could biology be a factor in girls being less interested (and successful) in STEM courses and careers? Based on research that indicates the male eye tracks more efficiently than the female one, males may have a physiological advantage in graphing and processing spatial information. But the way math and science are taught may be a bigger factor. According to Sax, boys’ brains are genetically geared for competition, risk taking, and overconfidence. This could result in a greater comfort level with independent work, absolute answers, and defending results.

Gender equity and instructional design

How should a parent or teacher address the gender identity of individual children? The reality is that while being male or female is generally accepted as a biological absolute, few would dispute that the expression of masculinity and femininity is a continuum.

Comments from the book discussion

Cheryl, a California kindergarten teacher, believes that “building relationships with each student is the key to knowing HOW to teach them… Gender is one of many issues that we need to consider when we plan our instruction, and it just adds to the growing number of variables teachers must take into account every day.” That may look different in different classroom settings.

Precious makes sure her elementary art students in Virginia have lots of hands-on activities because “boys especially have a harder time sitting still… They have a harder time with direct instruction because they are expected to sit so much of the day. When my boys are frustrated, they shut down.”

Eriko, a Collaboratory member from Tokyo, sees a similar pattern in older male students who “tend to keep their aggression inside until it explodes. Unlike female students, male students don’t let others know that they are bothered by something until it reaches the point that they just explode.” But he notes that physical activity, competition, and experimentation can keep boys engaged and defer negative behaviors.

Marsha, a middle-school science in Kansas, believes that “single-gender lab groups help tremendously. Girls have the space within those group discussions and learning experiences to develop their ideas and build confidence.”

In her Florida journalism class, Heather finds that “my boys are more likely to get distracted on the computers, playing in Photoshop and making amazing digital art that way. The girls are more likely to go above and beyond on the assignment given, but the boys are more likely to experiment and play in a self directed way.” She strives for balance by “finding common ground and speaking to individual strengths”.

Why Gender Matters

Sax concludes that “one hundred years from now, scholars may look back at the disintegration of early 21st-century culture and conclude that a fundamental cause for the unraveling our social fabric was the neglect of gender in raising of our children.”

But some teachers see it differently. Bill, who teaches humanities at an all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts, wonders if, rather than unraveling our current social fabric, reduced emphasis on gender will free our children of constraints that limit their full development. He says, “perhaps it’s mostly nurture, shaping our brains literally from the moment of birth. The question then becomes: need it matter?”

Our individual positions on gender are shaped by our own biology and life experiences, so it is unlikely that we will reach consensus.

What do you think? Answer these questions in the comments!

  • Is it possible (or desirable) to isolate nature from nurture?
  • Should school be gender neutral or gender sensitive?
  • Does our education system put students at any disadvantages due to gender?
  • Does the gender of teachers matter?
  • Does single-sex education enhance or constrain learning?
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