How Boys and Girls Learn Differently

At a primary school Manning, a small town 65 miles east of Columbia, South Carolina, second grade teachers Holly Garneau and Anna Lynne Gamble are convinced that segregating elementary-age boys and girls produces immediate academic improvement—in both genders. Eager to capitalize on their past progress, the two created a teaching plan for the upcoming semester. The kids will be in a coed environment for homeroom, lunch, and recess, then divide up for four hours each day to learn their math, science, reading and social studies. But first, Garneau and Gamble need the parents’ approval. That’s where David Chadwell, South Carolina’s coordinator of single gender education, comes in.

How Boys and Girls Learn Differently Scientific studies show that boys see things differently than girls. The male eye is drawn to cooler colors like silver, blue, black, grey, and brown. Boys also tend to create pictures of moving objects like spaceships, cars, and trucks in dark colors.

He doesn’t argue the politics of the issue. He emphasizes the science “These (learning) differences are tendencies, not absolutes. That is important,” he tells the group. “However, we can teach boys and girls based on what we now know because of medical technology.”

Just as he’s explained to hundreds of parents and teachers across the state, Chadwell patiently walks the Manning crowd through how boys and girls perceive the world.

“They see differently. Literally,” he begins. Male and female eyes are not organized in the same way, he explains. The composition of the male eye makes it attuned to motion and direction. “Boys interpret the world as objects moving through space,” he says. “The teacher should move around the room constantly and be that object.”

The male eye is also drawn to cooler colors like silver, blue, black, grey, and brown. It’s no accident boys tend to create pictures of moving objects like spaceships, cars, and trucks in dark colors instead of drawing the happy colorful family, like girls in their class.

The female eye, on the other hand, is drawn to textures and colors. It’s also oriented toward warmer colors—reds, yellow, oranges—and visuals with more details, like faces. To engage girls, Chadwell says, the teacher doesn’t need to move as much, if at all. Girls work well in circles, facing each other. Using descriptive phrases and lots of color in overhead presentations or on the chalkboard gets their attention.

Parents tilt their heads, curious to hear more.

Boys and girls also hear differently. “When someone speaks in a loud tone, girls interpret it as yelling,” Chadwell says. “They think you’re mad and can shut down.” Girls have a more finely tuned aural structure; they can hear higher frequencies than boys and are more sensitive to sounds. He advises girls’ teachers to watch the tone of their voices. Boys’ teachers should sound matter of fact, even excited. Chadwell’s voice sounds much more forceful as he explains.

Chadwell continues. A boy’s autonomic nervous system causes them to be more alert when they’re standing, moving, and the room temperature is around 69 degrees. Stress in boys, he says, tends to increase blood flow to their brains, a process that helps them stay focused. This won’t work for girls, who are more focused seated in a warmer room around 75 degrees. Girls also respond to stress differently. When exposed to threat and confrontation, blood goes to their guts, leaving them feeling nervous or anxious.

“Boys will rise to a risk and tend to overestimate their abilities,” he says. Teachers can help them by getting them to be more realistic about results,” he says. “Girls at this age shy away from risk, which is exactly why lots of girls’ programs began in the private sector. Teachers can help them learn to take risks in an atmosphere where they feel confident about doing so.”

It’s an aha! moment for many of the parents, who seem to understand.

These differences can be accommodated in the classroom, Chadwell adds. “Single gender programs are about maximizing the learning.”

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