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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  • AllisonSampish

    Gender Sensitive

    My school/classroom is always striving to be gender senstive! Currently in my kindergarten class I have 8 boys and 17 girls- which definitely impacts the types of lessons and activities we do throughout our day. During snack time we might have a loud and proud karoake rendition of Frozen’s “Let it Go” by the girls but we also then get some fierce tackling on the playground  field by the boys.  But more importantly I know that for most of my boys I must make the math activities competitive games, where there is a clear winner! While at the same time I need the same skills taught in a non threatening style for many of my girls (although some always pick the game)who can practice their skills and feel successful each time! I also saw the gender difference in our nonfiction writing unit- my girls frequently wanted to use the ipads to research bears, horses, butterflies… while the boys are begging to learn about sharks, tigers, foxes. Then when they would write about their new knowledge of these animals the girls were very descriptive of their animals creating a vivid image of them with their words. While the boys frequently focused on the power, skills and predator/prey attributes. 

    I would be missing connections with my students and ways to naturally engage them in our learning if I was not senstive to the gender, among other things…

  • SusanGraham

      Your classroom sounds like

      Your classroom sounds like a wonderful learning environment–the kind I’d like for my grandchildren. It’s been a long time since my own were in kindergarten, and I’m limited to  “snapshots” observations, so I’m curious.  In your opinion, are gender differences becoming more pronounced or less obvious over time? 

  • pwcrabtree

    Gender Matters…

    Gender roles are something that I unitl this webinar I didn’t reallly think about in my classroom since I try to meet all students where they are regardless of gender. However, after this discussion, I realized that I do need to be more aware of some gender differences such as the fact that boys’ eyes and brains understand spatial challenges better than girls. I want to take a closer look at artwork with this idea in mind. Could this be why more boys seem to grasp one point perspective than my girls?

    I would agree that my girls are often the ones that work REALLLY hard on projects trying to go above and beyond. Yet my boys when encouraged to take risks are more comfortable pushing the limits of the media or subject. While I encourage all my students to take risks, maybe I need to challenge my boys even more to get them fully engaged.

    I don’t think we should isolate nature from nurture. I think it does a disservice to our students to not nurture what is instinct and needed for a student to realize his or her own potential.

    Schools should become more aware of how gender motivates or influences student learning. When I first started teaching, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences were really big in education. I remember teaching my students about the MI’s and helping them to discover what their strengths were and how to utilize them. I allowed students to demonstrate their learning based on their strengths. Very powerful… shoud we be doing the same for gender differences now?

    Students are at a disadvantage if teachers are not utilizing multiple instructional strategies to meet all students’ needs. So I agree we need to get to know our students personally and understand them “scientifically”.

    I believe we need more males in the profession to serve as role models, and to have their voice at the table when making decisions about school activities and instruction. Also, I have noticed when I have Dad’s volunteer in my classroom, both the boys and girls behave and act differently. The boys are so excited to have a guy in the room that “speaks” their language and girls seek more attention than with a Mom in the room.

    Overall, we need to be aware and intentional in how we approach student learning and the expectations we set for each student. Thanks Susan for leading such a great webinar! I love that I am gaining perspective about things that I do but are not always as intentional as they should be!