News

Hard-wired to learn?

See Dick think. He is not like Jane.

Teachers see it — boys tend to fidget and flail in ways unlike a typical girl. Scientists see it, too — brain studies suggest boys process language and emotions less efficiently.

Talk of sex differences can ignite arguments in these gender-neutral times. But growing numbers of experts say society must face some politically incorrect realities:

That males and females, on average, show differences in learning skills — differences that may be hard-wired. And the evidence is compelling enough that schools rooted in equal treatment should rewrite their manuals to keep more boys engaged.

Take Dick’s brain.

At age 12 it’s three times more likely than Jane’s to misfire enough to be medicated for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. One out of 11 American boys that age downed medicine for the condition in 2003. That’s 200,000 12-year-olds — many of whom truly need the calming, while others reflect a culture of too much calming.

Surveys also show boys landing the bulk of school suspensions. They bring home roughly 70 percent of the D’s and F’s, according to national data and the local Kauffman Teen Survey.

Certainly, lots of boys shine. Lots of girls don’t. But boys as a group have long puzzled teachers and parents by crowding into two opposing camps — overachievers or discipline cases that may end up as dropouts.

Researchers say more mysteries than answers exist. But a surge of findings, aided by advances in brain imaging, is spurring changes many hope can enhance boys’ schooling:

■ Teachers sold on “brain-based learning” are using more visual and physical stimuli to help boys retain lessons.

■ Citing that boys mature at least a year behind girls, some experts are urging more parents to delay kindergarten for their sons.

■ Advocates of single-sex public schools are touting neurological data to justify separating classrooms by gender — to help both sexes.

■ Some scientists even see a day when parents bring their kids’ brain-scan charts when meeting teachers.

For Amy Cameron, who teaches English at Grandview Alternative School, the research has turned around a world view. “It used to be, ‘Every child is equal — male or female.’ It was our ideology,” she said. “But a lot of us have done a 180.

“Now it’s, ‘They really do think differently, and it’s biological.’ Most boys resent lectures. Girls respond well to them. It’s pretty obvious.”

It is to eighth-grader Chuckie Gunderson-Gabaree of Fairway, a proponent of less yakking: “I’d change school to make all of the teachers explain something once so we could all understand it, instead of going all around the place.”

Not everybody agrees that schools need drastic changes. And nobody advocates treating all boys one way, girls another. But what science and common sense dictate is that society should reject temptations to treat common boy behavior as a disease, many experts say.

Unless schools retool, “it’s a setup for failure,” said Kathy Stevens, co-author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Failing in School and Life. “He can’t sit still, he can’t stay focused … he must have a disorder!

“No. He’s a boy.”

Maryland physician Leonard Sax is so convinced of nature’s role in learning, he founded a national group calling on public schools to segregate classrooms by gender. “Both girls and boys have been disadvantaged by a system that disregards their hard-wiring.”

For example, science has shown — and teachers

should

know, he said — that little girls generally hear better than little boys.

Even as toddlers, girls tend to score higher in language ability, face recognition, fine motor skills and “social sensitivity.” Their higher doses of oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding, probably plays a role, scientists believe.

Girls even test out better at multitasking.

All of that augurs against boys in the modern classroom. The language gap — which researchers find worldwide — can be especially troubling in early grades, when Sax says many boys aren’t yet ready to enjoy reading or even hearing a book recited (unless it’s loud and theatrical).

“The acceleration of early education has done more to cause boys to disengage than anything else. They sit like a lump and think schooling is a complete waste of time.”

In higher grades they are hampered, Sax said, by trends in reading curricula: “There’s less reading about action and adventure, Captains Courageous, and more on personal relationships … As a result, boys are reading less in their spare time than they did just 15 years ago. Reading for fun has almost become a marker for gender identity.”

By the teen years, only 19 percent of boys report reading for pleasure at least three hours a week, compared to 37 percent of girls, one poll found.

Any good findings for boys? Yes, plenty.

As a group — even when very young — they are better at putting shapes together and visualizing an object’s appearance in three dimensions. They tend to outscore girls in computation.

They excel in map reading. Boys can focus for longer periods on one task (Nintendo, anyone?). And, on average, they finish tests faster than girls.

Some of these studies go back decades. And it’s not likely our brains at birth have changed much over generations. What keeps changing is society’s expectations for schooling, marked today by greater emphasis on reading and attention, said KU Med Center child development specialist Kathryn Ellerbeck.

“Boys pay more for it now,” she said. Years ago, a boy “could have ADHD and run around the farm without anybody even noticing.”

In recent years, brain-mapping technology has revealed more hints of boys’ learning hurdles.

Neural pathways between the two brain hemispheres generally allow girls to “cross-talk” and activate both. Most boys, when hearing instructions, are thought to activate only the left side. While researchers aren’t certain of the effects, David Powell of the International Center for Health Concerns equates the pathway variations to a paved interstate highway (in girls) and a meandering dirt lane (in boys) between two towns.

“On average” is key to understanding such differences, said Diane Halpern, past president of the American Psychological Association and author of Sex Differences in Intelligence.

Within each gender, the differences between one brain and the next can be countless; the averages are close by comparison. It’s that way in height, too: the gap between the tallest and shortest boy is far greater than the average boy and average girl. “There are no winners and losers,” Halpern said.

Some differences appear more striking than others, however.

Using functional MRI imaging on 19 persons ages 7 to 17, Harvard neuroscientist Deborah Yurgelun-Todd recorded how brain activity linked to strong emotions moves up, as children age, from a deep nugget of the brain called the amygdala. In older teens, scans caught activity in the cerebral cortex, the area that does the talking.

But this was found only in girls. In teen boys, the emotions remained stuck in the amygdala.

“Asking a 17-year-old boy to talk about why he’s glum may be about as productive as asking a 6-year-old boy,” said Sax, author of Why Gender Matters.

Sizing up the mysteries, KU specialist Ellerbeck co-wrote a paper urging the sciences to devote more resources for decoding sex selection in learning disorders. Autism, for example, affects boys 4-to-1. Some studies describe Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning cousin to autism, as claiming 10 to 15 boys for every girl.

A boy’s take on fidgeting, by Kansas City sixth-grader Demond Jones: “If the teacher is reading something long, I feel like going home and doing something fun like video games. I wiggle my pencil around until it flies out of my fingers and hits somebody.”

They fidget for a reason, said therapist Michael Gurian, author of a dozen books about boy development: “Boys are more likely than girls to attach their learning to physical movement.”

This may explain why many adult males pace, tap pencils and bend paper clips while thinking.

Gurian urges teachers to allow kids — boys in particular — to walk freely around the room, squeeze stress balls, deliver papers to the principal’s office, build a report instead of writing one, and work often in same-sex groups.

Several regional school districts have done Gurian seminars. In 1999 Principal Debbie Murphy went with teachers from Edison Elementary School in St. Joseph and came upon “an epiphany:” Strict order and confinement to desks brutalized boys.

So Edison teachers let pupils stand and move around as much as they wanted, provided they disturbed nobody. “I saw a change in teacher attitudes, in kids in general and boys in particular.”

Trips to the principal’s office plunged, suspensions fell from 300 to 22, “and when boys did come to me angry, I walked around the block with them,” said Murphy, now the human resources director for North Kansas City schools. “What did we have to lose? What we had to gain was the universe.”

Edison’s test scores that year soared from the bottom of 18 St. Joseph schools to the top five, according to Gurian’s book, Boys and Girls Learn Differently! Only two students failed among 400 at Edison, serving a minority, high-risk student body. The school’s success drew a 2001 salute in U.S. News and World Report.

Its current principal, however, said the effort has “fizzled out,” partly because of high teacher turnover.

“Sometimes you get great test results for a year or two and think, ‘That’s the silver bullet,’ ” said Doug Flowers. “But new people come in, new styles develop…

“I’m not saying the teachers didn’t buy into it. Sometimes they’ve just got so many things on their plates.”

Just discussing Dick versus Jane stirs unease.

“There is some reluctance on the part of some people” to make leaps about male and female learning patterns, said Susan Adler, director of teacher education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. While the research intrigues, she said, science hasn’t made a clear case for transforming schools: “I just don’t think we’re there yet.”

Sociologist Michael Kimmel of the State Universities of New York rejected anyone pressing a case that sex differences affect learning. “Really, how could you not call that anti-feminist?” he asked.

Neurobiologist Larry Cahill of the University of California-Irvine, who recently wrote up the topic in Scientific American, took exception: “Laughably wrong, but I believe that view prevails.

“A lot of scientists still don’t want to talk about sex differences in the brain. It scares people…(But) what scares me is seeing my own findings and choosing not to believe them.”

Cameron of Grandview acknowledged that basing teaching practices solely on gender would leave countless varieties of minds in the lurch. Still, accepting that differences exist can be “a starting point” toward mining the hidden strengths and weaknesses of each student.

“Bingo!” said Karen Mershon, kindergarten teacher in the North Kansas City district. “You look for what works with each child.”

It’s called “differentiated instruction,” which her district encourages: one mind at a time.

While it is a tall order for high school instructors facing 150 students a day and standardized-test demands, grasping the varieties of brain-based learning and behavior patterns would make their jobs more enjoyable, said Mel Levine, author of A Mind at a Time.

“Teachers need to know a lot more about individual learning and how it works,” the University of North Carolina pediatrics professor told parents and teachers at Pembroke Hill School, which invited him to lead a training session.

“To treat everyone the same is basically to treat them unequal.”

A Mission Hills mom took her 8-year-old son to a chiropractor rather than medicate his attention problems. His teacher “had no patience for the boys,” she said.

“It takes a lot out of boys to be sitting there seven hours (and) constantly told to stay on task, quit fidgeting. It gets to their self-esteem. My son came home sad a lot.”

She said the chiropractic sessions helped ease pressure on the base of her son’s brain. “Now he says, ‘Homework? Let’s sit down.’ ” Also, his new teacher is “committed to teaching every child individually.”

Parents must do their part, said Joan Caulfield, a former Kansas City teacher, principal and associate superintendent who consults schools in brain-based learning.

“It’s up to the parent to communicate to Mrs. Jones: ‘Yes, Johnny has trouble with geometry, but do you know he’s great at poetry and art?’ The parent needs to be a child’s advocate.”

Parents can bone up on the brain and foster good learning at home. Encouraging boys to articulate opinions, for example, can coat those bumpy neural pathways and speed language development. And always, said Levine, look for learning strengths and keep massaging them.

“We need to be optimistic,” he said. After all, Dick the adult likely will pursue a specialty “and not be asked to know about everything…

“It’s going to be so much easier than being a kid.”

Tuesday: Culture and the

myths of masculinity

  Comments