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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Boys and books
is the title of this article by Richard Whitmire
Combine Hilton's local research with national neuroscience research, and you arrive at this: The brains of men and women are very different. Last spring, Scientific American summed up the best gender and brain research, including a study demonstrating that women have greater neuron density in the temporal lobe cortex, the region of the brain associated with verbal skills. Now we've reached the heart of the mystery. Girls have genetic advantages that make them better readers, especially early in life. And, now, society is favoring verbal skills. Even in math, the emphasis has shifted away from guy-friendly problems involving quick calculations to word and logic problems.
Based on my experience as a mother, I fully agree with the above. I, like hundreds of other parents have found that the local public schools (and this is an award-winning district) are oriented towards teaching girls, not boys.

The next paragraph in the article points to another, related, problem:
Increasingly, teachers ask students to keep written journals, even as early as kindergarten. What gets written isn't polished prose, but it is important training, say teachers, some of whom rely on the book Kid Writing, which advocates the use of writing to teach children basic skills in a host of subjects. The teachers are only doing their jobs, preparing their students for a work world that has moved rapidly away from manufacturing and agriculture and into information-based work. It's not that schools have changed their ways to favor girls; it's that they haven't changed their ways to help boys adjust to this new world.
Again, speaking from my own experience as a mother, asking kindergarten boys to keep a journal is a mistake, because of several reasons:

1. The schools should be teaching all students the mechanics of writing. Remember the old Palmer calligraphy books we so despised when we were kids? (there even was a Palmer game). The books taught you how not only the letters looked, but also made your brain focus on the mechanics of writing itself, that is, the directionality, size, and shaping of the letters themselves.

My experience as a mother was that the local public schools simply give you a pencil and a paper and expect you to copy the words. One teacher even expected first graders to take dictation (something that I, in an all-girl's school was not expected to do until third grade). To say the least, such expectation leads only to frustration and turns you off schoolwork.

2. Men in general are simply not interested in keeping journals. I majored in economics and marketing and never once (in college or at work) came across one guy who'd say he would keep a writing journal. I am married to a scientist (PhD in one of the natural sciences) and, as a rule, the only journals scientists keep are work-related. Young boys are definitely not interested in keeping journals. They want to do boy stuff.

Additionally, boys develop fine motor skills associated with good penmanship later in life than girls.

Which brings me to the next point:

3. Boys learn by doing. Girls learn by sitting down and talking about it. As a girl, I learned by doing, too, particularly when it came to math, but did great in school because of also being able to learn by sitting down and talking about it, even when I preferred doing to talking. The difference is, boys need to do, in order to learn.

4. My own informal survey (carried once a year for five years) of parents of children at a local private school that specializes in learning disabilities showed that 80% of the children had parents in the fields of natural sciences, computers, medicine, or engineering. Seventy percent of the children had both parents in those fields. One question would be whether that is due to those careers being able to generate the salaries required to pay for the tuition at that school. Still, there are very highly paid people in other jobs in this area of NJ but were underrepresented in the group. I also know at least two severely dyslexic men who are very successful engineers.

5. Cases of dyslexia are nearly unheard-of in countries where the language is spelled phonetically, for instance, in Spanish speaking countries, since Spanish is read exactly as spelled (with very few exceptions for words derived from indigenous or foreign languages). Dyslexia can be managed very successfully if the student is taught early enough to read English through phonetics, sounds, phonemes and word structure (Latin roots, etc.). Again, my experience with the local public schools is that they used a whole-word approach to reading, ignoring the traditional phonetic approach.

6. My experience also has been that boys prefer to read non-fiction (for example, the DK Eyewitness Books), or action-oriented fiction.

Because of 4 and 5 above, I dare to speculate that the brains of technologically-talented people learn in ways that are not addressed by current school curricula. I will go even further in my speculation: the decreasing number of Americans in graduate schools of science and engineering will continue to decrease if public schools continue on this excessive reliance on verbal skills.

While the schools might feel that they're doing their jobs "preparing their students for a work world that has moved rapidly away from manufacturing and agriculture and into information-based work", they are missing the forest from the trees: Technology-oriented societies depend on science and math skills, not simply on the reading/writing of information.

The schools are being criticized for wasting money, and parents, such as this one, are increasingly frustrated by failing schools. The schools are ignoring a politically incorrect basic fact: Men and women process information differently. It is time teaching colleges start by teaching their students the latest neurological research on biological learning differences.

By doing so, all children, boys as well as girls, will be able to best meet the demands of our technology-reliant world.

Related reading:
Why Gender Matters, by Leonard Sax.
The Minds of Boys : Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents, and The Boys and Girls Learn Differently Action Guide for Teachers, all by Michael Gurian.

Follow-up post here

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