Why Gender Matters for Teachers


Suppose you are teaching students in the early elementary grades. You give all your students a blank sheet of paper and a box of crayons and tell them to draw whatever they want.  What do children draw?

Girls Drawing
Boys Drawing

 Studies using this paradigm have found that young girls tend to draw people, pets, flowers, and/or trees, facing the viewer, with lots of detail, eyes, hair, clothes, facial expressions, etc.

Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to draw a dynamic scene of action, such as a rocket smashing into a planet, or soldiers shooting at each other. Faces, if visible, are often lacking features.

What teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences

Note: this version of the workshop is intended for a K-12 coed school. Other versions of the workshop are available for K-8 schools, for high schools, for girls’ schools and for boys’ schools. Please contact us with a brief description of your school for more information about customizing the workshop for your school.

1) Some sex differences appear to have an innate basis.

Girls and boys see the world in subtly different ways (see Why Gender Matters, second edition, appendix on female/male differences in hearing, for more information and scholarly citations on this point).

The differences in these drawings may derive at least in part from hardwired differences in the visual system (again, please see Why Gender Matters, second edition, appendix on female/male differences in hearing, for scholarly citations on this point).  Teachers who understand these differences will have boys who love to draw.  Teachers who do not understand these differences are more likely to have boys who say, “Drawing is for girls.”  Ironically, the lack of understanding of gender differences has the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Because so few teachers understand the differences between girls and boys in terms of what they want to draw, the result is – in many cases – boys who think that the visual arts are unmasculine. But the importance of these differences extends beyond visual arts.  How we see influences how we read and how we write.  Some characteristics of “boy writing” – particularly the emphasis on action – may be traced in part to these differences in the visual system.


Sequence of development.  We now know that the various regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in boys compared with girls (see Why Gender Matters, second edition, pp. 85 – 88, for citations on this point). This new research demonstrates that sex differences in the brain diminish as a function of age.  Sex differences in the brain are largest between young girls and young boys; whereas sex differences between adult females and males are small.  The same is true for many parameters relevant to education.  For example:  How long can you sit still, be quiet, and pay attention?  We find no difference on that parameter comparing a 40-year-old woman with a 40-year-old man.  But when we compare a 6-year-old girl with a 6-year-old boy, we find that the average 6-year-old boy can sit still, be quiet, and pay attention for only about half as long as the average 6-year-old girl.  He may be sitting still and being quiet, but he is not paying attention.  It’s common to find 6-year-old boys who absolutely have to stand and make buzzing noises in order to learn.  It’s unusual to find a 40-year-old man who absolutely has to stand and make buzzing noises in order to learn.

Another important insight from recent research has to do with when we reach full maturity in terms of brain development.  We now know that women do not reach full maturity in terms of brain development until about 22 years of age; men, not until 30 years of age.  The 15-year-old boy still has a very long way to go.  What is developmentally appropriate for a 6-year-old girl may not be developmentally appropriate for a 6-year-old boy; and the same is true for a 15-year-old boy compared with a 15-year-old girl.

If teachers don’t understand these differences, the result is girls who believe that “geometry is tough” and some boys who believe that “poetry is stupid.”  The teacher’s lack of awareness of sex differences has the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes.  Conversely, teachers who understand these differences can break down gender stereotypes:  they can enable more girls to excel in and to enjoy math and computer science, and they can inspire more boys to get excited about creative writing, poetry, and Spanish language.

How to accommodate these differences in the coed classroom?  How to allow a 6-year-old boy to stand and make buzzing noises, without distracting his peers?  That’s our focus in this section.


2) Instructional practices (this next section, on gender-aware strategies for each subject area, occupies most of the workshop)

We will consider applications to these subject areas:

  • Best practices for teaching language arts and English.
    • Challenging the notion of “girl books” and “boy books”:  How can you best teach My Brother Sam Is Dead to 6th grade girls?  How can you best teach The Secret Garden for 6th-grade boys?  How about Macbeth and All Quiet on the Western Front to high school girls?  How about Jane Eyre for high school boys?
    • Why is it NOT a good idea to ask (most) boys, “How would you feel if you were that character?”  Alternatives to this question.
    • Encouraging boys to make their writing more vivid by restating adjectives as subordinate clauses or as participles.  Instead of describing a cat as having “goldenrod eyes,” try “eyes the color of rotting squash” (from The Hunger Games, chapter 1).
    • Gender-specific use of skits etc. in the classroom.
    • When to use in medias res as an instructional strategy.
    • Some boys like to write violent stories; what’s in-bounds and what’s out-of-bounds?
    • Creative writing storyboarding: why this approach works better with most boys than with most girls
    • Imagining the counter-factual: e.g. in teaching The Secret Garden, asking what would have happened if Mary’s parents did not die of cholera? Why this strategy is less effective with boys than with girls.
    • Expository writing: the personal approach vs. the critical approach; gender variations
    • Transgressive approaches: why these work better with most boys than with most girls
  • Computer science for girls.  Based on the work of Professor Caitlin Kelleher at Washington University – St. Louis, in this segment we explore a new strategy for engaging teenage girls in computer science which has been remarkably effective:  more than tripling the proportion of girls who use their spare time to work on their computer programming, from 16% to 51%.
  • Best practices for teaching physics to teenage girls (see Girls on the Edge, first edition, pp. 132 – 138)
    • The Feynman approach:  focus on the why
    • The Lisa Randall approach:  e.g. the photoelectric effect as the dessert dilemma
    • Why some STEM mentoring programs fail, while others succeed
  • Best practices for modern foreign languages.  There are no sex differences in the ability to master foreign languages.  But, there are big differences in the best ways to get boys motivated to master a foreign language, compared with girls.
  • Best practices for teaching math to boys, and to girls: For girls, begin with concrete, then move to abstract.  For boys:  Start with numbers for the sake of numbers.  Although one Piaget’s basic principles – concrete before abstract – is accurate in most content areas, researchers have discovered just in the past decade that specifically with regard to mathematical concepts, most boys do better if you teach the abstract mathematical principle first, then move to the concrete application and the word problems.  For example, in teaching how to solve equations in multiple variables, the “boy-friendly” approach might be to ask:  If x + 2y = 90, and 2x + y = 60, solve for x and y.  The “girl-friendly” approach might be to ask:  If a blouse and two sweaters cost $90, and a sweater and two blouses cost 0, how much does one blouse cost and how much does one sweater cost?  The “boy-friendly” approach is to begin with the equations, then move to the word problem.  The “girl-friendly” approach is to begin with the word problem, then move to the equations.
  • Best practices for teaching social studies and history to girls
    • Begin with “what would it be like to be a girl your age living in . . .”
    • Make the connection with the student
    • Examples from the southern United States before the Civil War:  what would it be like to be a White girl on a Virginia plantation?  What would it be like to be a Black slave girl on the same plantation?  Introduce the narrative history only after the connection is made, and interest is engaged.
  • Best practices for teaching social studies and history to boys
    • Use narrative history as a vehicle to engage boys, and then make the pivot into social studies.
    • Why is historical fiction less reliably effective with elementary- and middle-school boys – even though adult men love it?
    • In medias res:  why it sometimes makes sense to start “in the middle of things”
    • Emphasize technical elements, and maps:  What was the difference between a Confederate rifle and a Union Army rifle?  Why did it matter?

How to accommodate these differences in the coed classroom?  The key is to understand the differences, and offer choices without labeling. For example, in American history, you might offer students a choice of either writing an essay on “How would it feel if you were. . .” versus “Describe and evaluate the choices available to Col. Joshua Chamberlain after the fourth assault by the 15th Alabama at Little Round Top.” Some girls may choose to write about Col. Chamberlain; some boys may choose to write about their feelings. That’s great. Girls and boys can both be enthusiastic about history, in the coed classroom, if you understand these differences.

Ironically, the result of ignoring gender – pretending gender doesn’t matter, and assuming that one instructional style works equally well for both girls and boys – disadvantages both girls and boys. Both girls and boys may decide that history is stupid and boring.


3) Some girls and boys don’t fit the usual stereotypes.

Some girls don’t want to play with dolls; they’d rather kick a football or wrestle a hog.  Some boys don’t enjoy football or hockey; they’d rather read Twilight.  Research by Jerome Kagan, Patricia Cayo Sexton, and others, has demonstrated that these boys share a number of characteristics which distinguish them from ‘mainstream’ boys (for the relevant scholarly citations, please see Why Gender Matters, chapter 9):

  • These boys may be athletically talented, but if so, they tend to prefer tennis, track, or golf, rather than football or soccer
  • These boys are more likely to suffer from allergies, asthma, and eczema
  • These boys are more likely to be precocious, particularly with regard to language
  • These boys are NOT more likely to be homosexual.  Sexual orientation is an independent parameter.

What do educators need to do to ensure that all boys – including these boys – fulfill their potential?  And what about gender-atypical girls, a.k.a. “tomboys”?  How do the principles described above differ for these girls – if they are different?


4) Best practices for classroom management and motivation – with an eye on boys.

  1. The team-competitive format in the classroom.  We will review how to introduce team competition within the classroom, how to assign students to the various teams, how to address differing abilities among the various teams, how implementation at secondary school differs from implementation in elementary school, and how to implement team competition in a way which reliably motivates girls as well as boys.
  2. Bullying prevention.  The traditional approach – some variation on “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” – doesn’t work very well in preventing boy-on-boy bullying. What does work?
  3. Eminem vs. the Gentleman.  It’s not sufficient for a boy to become a man; we want him to become a gentleman, i.e. a man who is courteous, responsible, and genuine.  How to create a classroom in which it’s “cool” to be a gentleman?


5) Best practices for classroom management and motivation – with an eye on girls.

We will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of various seating arrangements, how to encourage group work without promoting the formation of cliques, and the difference – in girls’ eyes – between teammates and friends.  We will consider specifically preventing the “Meangirls” phenomenon.  This strategy, developed initially at an independent school in Illinois, the Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, has been effective in preventing girl-on-girl bullying in coed schools across North America (see Girls on the Edge, first edition, pp. 147 – 154).

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