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Section headings

Preliminary word of caution

Male and female brains

Co-ordinating left and right brain

It's not cool to be good at school

Examining English

Single sex language teaching

Classroom domination




I believe that all individuals should be treated as individuals regardless of their gender, race, colour, nationality, perceived ability or intelligence, sexual orientation, etc. This applies no less within the context of providing learning opportunities than in other areas of life.


However, providing individuals with equality of opportunity does not mean that they must all be provided with the same opportunity. (For instance, it would be inappropriate to address a mixed group of hearing, hearing-impaired and deaf students using British Sign Language alone - because that would most likely hinder the understanding of the students who do not sign. All the students would be receiving the same opportunity - but not equality of opportunity.)




Likewise, we need to recognise that by putting students with different learning styles in the same classroom, although we may be providing them with the same opportunity, we are not actually facilitating their individual learning equally effectively.


In an ideal world, teachers ought to take into consideration the individual learning style(s) and preferred means of perceiving, processing and presenting information of each of their students.


In reality, we invariably pigeon-hole our students into a limited number of categories. Whether we adopt the four categories proposed by Honey and Mumford, the four identified by Kolb and McCarthy, or the eight (nine?) suggested by Howard Gardner, it is better than treating our students as if they were all moulded from the same lump - but not much better.

Although there are differences in the way in which boys and girls generally prefer to process information, we should nevertheless remind ourselves that this is the minimalist approach, in that it identifies only two broad categories. Nevertheless, differentiation on the basis of gender is a starting point - but we do need to bear in mind that it is heavily dependant on making sweeping generalisations.





The different sides of the brain have different functions.






analytical thinking

shaping of ideas


fine motor skills





spatial awareness

creative & imaginative functions



quality of sound

facial recognition


The above applies to the majority of right-handed people.

 In left-handed and ambidextrous people the functional specialisation is different: sometimes this is simply a swap-over - but may also be a more complex sharing of functions.


Males generally have more-developed right hemispheres - which disposes them towards spatial tasks such as map-reading or interpreting technical drawings. Females generally have more-developed left hemispheres - which is probably why they learn to speak earlier than males and are often more adept at languages. Females are also better at fine motor control, which probably accounts for their generally superior handwriting skills.



Joining the left and right halves of the brain, and co-ordinating their functions, is a bundle of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum. As children grow, the two brain hemispheres become increasingly more specialised, each becoming more involved in "doing its own thing". As specialisation increases, so the corpus callosum becomes thinner and weaker - until, at puberty, the thinning stops. However, because females usually reach puberty before males, this thinning stops earlier in females - resulting in them having a thicker corpus callosum. This means that men tend to have brains that are more specialised with relatively less communication between the two hemispheres, the consequences of which are far-reaching.


Whereas men are more vulnerable to problems such as dyslexia and hyperactivity, both of which are exacerbated by lack of hemispheric co-ordination, their compartmentalised thinking enables them to isolate specific problems as they attempt to solve them. Hence, men are more likely to excel at maths, mechanics and engineering. By contrast, women are able to take a more holistic view and are more likely to integrate logic and emotion, thus demonstrating enhanced "emotional intelligence".


Geoff Hannan


Geoff Hannan points out that this bias is evident long before puberty. "Girls tend to be brought up to have relationships with people, to be responsible for themselves and others, with a strong emphasis on communication. They are brought up as 'the talkers'. Boys, on the other hand, are brought up to have relationships with objects. They are 'the doers'."


Highlighting the predominance of right-brain thinking in males, Hannan suggests that a boy's oral skills are weaker, as are his literacy, organisational and analytical skills. Consequently, "his lack of competence (and interest) in analysing, sequencing and prioritising are central to his academic under-achievement."


Summing up the difference in boys' and girls' learning styles, Hannan writes: "He does first and then (hopefully) thinks. She thinks first and then (hopefully) does. He has a trial and error, experiential learning style rooted in confidence, competence and interest in the manipulation of objects and systems. He is a speculative thinker (leading towards physics as a subject). She has a language-centred, sequential learning style, rooted in an interest in people and relationships. She is a reflective thinker (leading towards English)."






Research from Homerton College, Cambridge has shown that "if you're a boy, it's just not cool to work hard at school." Peer pressure militates against boys' success because boys appear more concerned with preserving an image of reluctant involvement or disengagement. The researchers conclude: "For many boys, their emerging masculinity placed them in direct conflict with the ethos and aspirations of the school, an antagonist against whom their own masculinity was frequently tested."


Cathy Byrne (primary head teacher) suggests that boys "paint themselves into a tight gender role corner" from as early as six years old. She noticed a deterioration in enthusiasm and a refusal to participate in any activity where they were not certain of success; much of which coincided with the child's awakening realisation of their gender.


It's OK to be good at sport because that's physical, it shows you're tough. It's even acceptable to be good at art because that's perceived as natural talent and you don't have to work at it. Being good at music is acceptable for the same reason, though it depends on the instrument. Electric guitar and drums are for boys, the clarinet and cello for girls.


"Why teenage boys think success is sad"

Times Educational Supplement

18 August 1995



BYRNE, Cathy

"Exceptions that prove the role"

Times Educational Supplement

6 February 1998


In a TES article questioning whether the English GCSE exam is biased in favour of girls, Nicholas Pyke pointed out that "an increasing number of academics are coming to the conclusion that the curriculum at GCSE level plays to female strengths, and that it has probably contributed to the enormous improvement in girls' results over the past decade."


Examiners thought girls had an advantage in:

  • extended pieces

  • answers to open-ended questions

  • showing audience awareness

  • writing reflectively

  • writing empathetically

  • writing imaginatively

  • discussing character motivation

  • conversation/drama

  • writing about poems

  • writing about literary prose

  • writing about drama

  • preparing for assignments

  • discussing assignments with teachers

  • listening.

By contrast, boys scored better only in:

  • writing argumentatively

  • writing factually

  • interpreting visual material.

Boys also do well on multiple-choice test papers which do not figure in GCSE English.


PYKE, Nicholas

"Is English GCSE a girls' own paper?"

Times Educational Supplement

24 May 1996


Writing in the TES, Amanda Barton reported on 3 schools that were experimenting with single-sex teaching of modern languages.


At Hollingworth High School in Rochdale, which segregates the whole of Year 7 for French classes, Valerie McDonald is using the opportunity to foster boys' social skills, encouraging them to adopt a more organised approach. The main benefit, however, is that the boys' writing skills have "improved considerably".


At Madeley High School in Staffordshire, the decision to segregate was based as much on concern for the girls as for the boys. Faced with a group of "strong, dynamic boys who were very, very vociferous" and a group of "studious, quiet girls who were gradually bludgeoned into silence", Norma Horton (head of modern languages) decided to separate them. She reports that lessons with the boys are "more boisterous" but have resulted in their test results being elevated to almost the same level as the girls.


At Ashlawn School in Rugby, Kirsten Watkins encourages a more relaxed atmosphere with her all-boys Year 10 French group. As an extra incentive, she also encourages an element of competition with the corresponding girls group. Acknowledging that it may be frowned on by equal opportunities experts, she maintains that it creates tremendous motivation - and reports that the boys are "unexpectedly positive" about writing.


All three heads of languages are keenly aware that segregation alone is not an answer but have done much to identify the learning styles, interests and needs of the boys they teach. Perhaps it is this has led the boys at Madeley to thrive in what they describe as a "happier environment".



BARTON, Amanda

"Words of comfort for males"

Times Educational Supplement

22 March 1996


Dr Christine Howe suggests that girls could be their own worst enemies by encouraging boys to dominate in the classroom. Boys tend to "dominate the physical context, volunteering for practical demonstrations in science and controlling the mouse and keyboard in computing". Boys will also make more contributions than girls and their contributions will be more elaborate. Research into oral assessment suggests that boys interrupt girls more than the reverse. However, it should not be assumed that quantity equates with quality.


What is perhaps disturbing about Dr Howe's findings is that girls acquiesce by asking boys for help. In a study that observed young children working on a jigsaw puzzle, it was observed that girls were three times as likely as boys to ask for help from the supervising adult. In the absence of an adult, girls direct their pleas for assistance to boys. This reiterates the finding that girls prefer to relate to people, whereas boys "relate" to objects.


Dr Howe makes the point that we should not necessarily assume that girls are the "losers" in this process, as "soliciting contributions is a highly active process" and the girls are being afforded an opportunity to develop their interpersonal skills.


HOWE, C (1997)

"Gender and Classroom Interaction"

Strathclyde: Scottish Council for Research in Education

See also:

Learning styles and gender differences (chart)

Bridging the gender divide