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If boys and girls are different, we need to teach them differently

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 30 July 2019

"Some people think boys and girls are mainly the same", I said to one of my favourite grand-daughters. "Hmm," she said. "Well - they're not." The idea that men are like this, but women are like that, is a familiar one. We need not reduce it down to simple slogans and comparisons.

We still sometimes hear the rather old-fashioned phrase, "the opposite sex". I doubt many would use it today without eyebrows being raised. Males and females do differ in important ways. There is sound research indicating key differences. Can we speak of important differences between males' and females' brains? John Medina's book Brain Rules: Twelve Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School suggests we can. He's a molecular biologist who's put his research into plain English in a US best-seller. He provides solid biological research and offers much food for thought. His chapter on sex differences is the basis for what follows.

Some key sex differences

Chromosomes are the strings of DNA packed into the cell nuclei that makes you and me what we are. They are 46; we get 23 from our mother and 23 from our father. The Y is made only by sperm: thus it's the male that decides if the child being formed is male or female. The XX pattern makes you female; the XY, male. Around the world, the proportion born each sex is different. Some 107 males are born, to 100 females. Nature, or God, has made it so, because males die earlier.


Male brains and female brains show certain contrasts; this is not to say that all males are the same or there are no variations within a group of boys, or within a group of girls. Please note this. I can't repeat it ad nauseam. Language and reading disorders appear twice as often among boys. Girls are better at verbal memory, verbal fluency and a lot of other things about words. Thus most schools, in stressing listening, reading and writing, are catering more to things girls are characteristically better at than boys. It's important to remember that nurture and nature seem to be inextricably linked. It's impossible for scientists to separate them. Thus a girl who is naturally better at language than her brothers (on average) is more likely than the brother(s) to be encouraged to read by parents. She's offered lots of opportunities to read and write. She might keep a diary or scribble long notes. There are shops selling 'girly' writing materials that seem very popular.

Boys are more likely to be asked "What did you DO today?" In a dozen different ways, schools and families coax them to go outside, do things; play a sport. That's the way to prove your manliness, according to men I've spoken to. That word prove needs a lot of discussion, as I've argued in Fathers, Sons and Lovers. But showing parents, teachers- and other boys- that he can bowl a cricket ball, or kick a football, is a very important part of the process of becoming a man, as one said to me in interview:

You got called a sissy if you cried. You stood out if you didn't play cricket and football, too

There were similar comments from many other males spoken to, with variations according to time, place and culture. Sport remains a cornerstone in the critical project of becoming a man. Some of the others are having sex in an approved way; going to war; and becoming a father.

Thus the world of words is seen more often as belonging to females than to males, and the opposite is thought of sport.

In earlier times, females were renowned as novelists, despite sometimes being discouraged. Girls cement their relationships with words, looking at each other often. Girls talk more words, according to Brizendine; and females speak more words in a day than males. Meanwhile, boys are throwing balls around, kicking a football or competing in "who can do this fastest". Boys push each other much more, poking , prodding and wrestling with their friends. They have a big fight and make friends again. They build a Lego city and smash it up before starting again. They connect shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face.


Male and female brains differ in structure and in their biochemical composition. In a stressful situation, women tend to emphasise the emotional factors. Men go for the gist. Female teachers tell me that if they report a problem at school, husbands will reply "They should change the….". We'd expect female listeners to be more likely to ask "How did you feel?"

Teachers could try an experiment. Bring something like a plate of leeches into the classroom. Girls would be more likely to say "Oh no! Aren't they yucky!" Boys would show their revulsion, rather than speak of it. In a similar vein, I watched as my young son handled slimy snakes in a nature centre, without a lot of words.

Boys as learners

Many of us, Steve Biddulph included, have argued the need for teaching that is boy-friendly as well as girl-friendly. Do boys and girls need different emphases? Andrew Martin, in How to Motivate Your Child , says they do. All kids want to learn actively: but boys want this more. Martin goes on to stress what boys need to keep them motivated. First, good relationships are central with boys, so that good teachers are affirming them, giving them responsibility and sharing a joke with them.

Second, respecting the boy, affirming him as a young learner and listening carefully to him. Third, a sense of humour is critical, and this can appear in any number of ways. Fourth, relevance. Boys want to learn useful things: skills they can use outside a schoolroom.

And of course, learning outside four walls appeal to many boys. Hands-on work, work in the community, visiting old people to help them with some task: I've seen all these appeal to boys. Lastly, boys want to be challenged. They want to master something and feel better in themselves. In advising teachers about teaching boys, I emphasise all these points.

Thus I argue that the teaching of boys needs to be boy-friendly. We've tried hard since the Whitlam years to make sure that teaching is girl-friendly, especially in subjects like maths, science and technology. Can we also keep an eye on what appeals to boys ? It's only common sense to make sure that teaching caters to all our kids.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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