Do boys and girls learn differently?

Time and again there has been a debate about whether boys and girls learn differently. We add a dimension to the debate with this article.

By Chitra Satyavasan

Do boys and girls learn differently?


Dr Lise Eliot is Associate Professor of Neuroscience, Chicago Medical School. In this interview, the acclaimed neuroscientist tells us that contrary to popular perception, boys and girls are not really ‘wired differently’.

Boys are better at Math, girls are too emotional – all of us have grown up with the burden of such assumptions, never really wondering how much of truth there is in such beliefs. Genes and hormones do make boys and girls different, but does that also mean that boys and girls learn differently?

Dr Lise Eliot, Associate Professor of Neuroscience, Chicago Medical School, had written a book Pink Brain, Blue Brain in 2009, exploring such beliefs and misconceptions to find out what exactly is going on in our brains, and how biology and social nurturing make boys and girls what they are. She believes that it is not easy for parents to challenge gender assumptions. Still parents need to do it, for boys and girls to reach their fullest potential.

Are there any boy-girl differences in the brain?

Boys’ brains are about 8% larger than girls and finish growing about 1-2 years later during puberty. However, boys’ bodies are also larger from birth onwards, and girls’ earlier brain maturation matches their earlier entry into puberty. Other differences have been found between adult men and women’s brains, but none have been verified in children – so the differences cropping up later are not innate differences, but more due to what they have learnt.

In other words, the male and female brain grow to be more different, as children mature, learn and become more sexually differentiated in their behaviour and activities. Most importantly, the differences that have been found in brain activity and connectivity are small. There is actually much more overlap than difference in brain measures between males and females. You can never look at a brain image and determine if it is coming from a boy or a girl.

Are there any cognitive differences between girls and boys? What about developmental milestones like girls talking earlier than boys?

Girls talk about one month earlier than boys. This difference is found in children around the world and it is not significant. Gender accounts for only 3% of the variance in verbal skill, meaning, once again, that the range of verbal abilities is much wider within gender than between genders. In other words, parents should not wait if their son is talking late, but have the child evaluated for a possible speech delay and therapy.

There is no difference in gross motor milestones—sitting up, standing, walking, or running. Boys and girls achieve all these at the same average age. Girls perform better on reading and writing tests, while boys do better on spatial skill tests (but not general Math), beginning in elementary school. The academic gaps, which are seen around the world, reflect a mixture of nature and nurture, but can be minimized in excellent schools with strong attention to early literacy and spatial skills, and a rejection of gender stereotypes.

Many parents have said that when trying to raise their children, when they show a car/toy soldier and a doll, their daughters always reach out for the doll. What does that really tell us?

Actually, before age one, both boys and girls prefer dolls over other toys, because all infants are born with an innate face preference. Boys gravitate more toward trucks and balls in the second year of life, due to their higher activity level. (The average 3-year-old boy is more active than two-thirds of girls–which also means that the average girl is more active than one-third of boys.) Prenatal testosterone appears to have some role in the preference for such active playthings.

But at the same time, a lot of the difference in toy preference has to do with gender identification. Once children figure out that they are male or female, they become very adamant about living up to the role, because young children see the world in opposites —black vs white, big vs. little, up vs. down—and gender, too, they see as ‘opposites.’ Of course, parents tend to reinforce this, along with toy manufacturers.

Are gender differences 'hard-wired' or is it that external influences and experiences make girls and boys behave the way they do?

It is both, but since the important things we do with our brains—school work, hobbies, social interactions, sports, paid employment—are all largely learnt, we can conclude that the sex differences in these abilities are also largely learnt. As we have seen over the past 40 years, girls really CAN do everything boys can do. The same is true in reverse, but boys in most cultures are rarely given the opportunity to be artists, nurturers, or dancers.

Is there a 'correct' way of raising a girl or a boy keeping in her/his biological makeup?

Absolutely! The ‘correct way’ is to treat each child as an individual, not a gender stereotype. Appreciate that any child CAN be capable of anything, and don’t limit a child’s exposure to science, nature, books, drama, music, sports, or dance based solely on whether the child is a boy or a girl.

In fact, I argue that parents should lean the other way, deliberately cross-training our daughters to get dirty and take risks, and our sons to talk about their feelings, read, write and nurture pets and younger children. The earlier children get to exercise non-traditional skills, the better they will be for life.

What is the main thing a parent should keep in mind while teaching their child so that he/she learns better?

All of the points given above. Plus love.

A child needs to feel safe and loved before they can optimally learn. Also, children need to follow their own curiosity to learn best. Avoid drill-and-kill flash cards and the like.

How can parents help their children transcend gender stereotypes in learning and development?

Role modelling is important, so if mom and dad have different responsibilities around the home, children will see that and expect to do the same when they grow up. I also find that I need to constantly correct my children when they spout gender stereotypes—e.g., that girls shouldn’t be tough or boys shouldn’t wear nail polish. Ask them ‘why’ when they spout such claims. It is an interesting exercise that teaches them how gender norms are really just societal, not hard-wired.