Helping Boys Succeed in School – Brain Differences and Masculinity

Helping Boys Succeed in School – Brain Differences and Masculinity

Education May 06, 2014 / By Sean Talamas
Helping Boys Succeed in School – Brain Differences and Masculinity

Tainted perspectives on masculinity and ignorance to differences in the way boys and girls learn and function is a bad recipe for boy’s academic performance and behavior.

For decades gender bias concerns have been focused on girls not getting equal treatment in school. In a study ran by the American Association of University women (1992) It was found that: girls were not called on as much as boys, girls generally did worse in math/science, boys led athletics, and that girls suffered drops in self-esteem as they entered middle and high school. Many advocacies groups sparked from these findings and positive strides have been made to improving upon these statistics.

On the other hand, since the beginning of data collection in education it has been found that boys underperform in school.   The National Center for Education Statistics (2000) found that boys are one and one-half years behind girls in reading/writing, while girls are only slightly behind boys in math/science (Conlin, 2003). 

Gurian and Stevens (2007) highlighted these findings in an article named With Boys and Girls in Mind. They go on to underline some key statistics in regards to boy’s academic achievement that are extremely troubling:

 ·      Boys earn 70 percent of Ds and Fs and fewer than half of the As

·      Boys account for two-thirds of learning disability diagnoses

·      Boys represent 90 percent of discipline referrals

·      80 percent of high school dropouts are male

·      Males make up fewer than 40 percent of college students (Gurian et al., 2001)

·      It is boys that are mostly (over) diagnosed with learning disorders like ADD/ADHD

o   And over prescribed with medication.

 The organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2003) released a study showing that females out perform males in academic achievement in every country.

Gender equality does not mean curriculum equality. Boys and girls should receive the same amount of education quality, but not the same education. Research has shown significant differences in the way minds of girls and boys function in relation to learning. Girl’s have been shown to have a larger hippocampus (memory storage area in the brain), stronger neural connectors (more sensually detailed memory storage, listening skills, etc.), and a faster developed/more active prefrontal cortex (reducing impulsivity). Boy’s brains have also been shown to have less oxytocin (a bonding chemical that helps neutralize impulsivity) and compartmentalize learning (less multitasking ability).

It is these differences in the brain between boys and girls that help explain why girls do significantly better in school. It also clarifies why boys generally do better and are more interested in math and physics than girls are and why boys tend to get in trouble more in school for issues related to impulsivity.

To this point, I have heavily paraphrased the article by Gurian and Stevens (2007) to highlight some of the major brain differences between boys and girls in relation to learning and its effects on differences in academic performance. I believe these differences are vital to consider when developing curriculum and educational policy. On the other hand, I believe a far more critical component to consider when discussing the gender gap in academic performance is boy’s social norms and perceptions of masculinity.

The issue of tainted perceptions of masculinity not only negatively effects boys performance in schools; it is also encourages violence against women. A societal shift in attitudes about “what makes you a man” has taken a turn in a dangerous direction. The goal of being a gentleman is now seen as a weakman. Fathers (and mothers alike) are constantly telling their young boys to “be a man” – a term that usually refers to showing less emotion or more aggression. Masculinity today does not value empathy, compassion, or caring, but rather the demanding of respect and the display of dominance.

It is these new (depressing) attitudes towards masculinity that have led to boys doing worse in academia and the increasing rate of violence against women. It is important that educators take into account both the differences in the brain between males and females, as well as the changing social norms that affect the way boys learn and behave in school. Further, educators should take responsibility for being the first line of defense to these outlandish revolutions of masculinity and do their best to stop it in its tracks by consulting with parents, administrators, and with the children themselves to correct such a destructive phenomenon.

I have been a part of groups that are considered by most as potentially some of the most masculine groups anyone can be affiliated with (according to the current shift in masculinity perceptions): a combat career field in the US Military (TACP), a Rowing team, and a Basketball team. I would argue that the masculinity associated with these groups is not and should not be based on their dominance, aggression, strength, or respect, but rather their courage, compassion, and commitment to the team for a shared goal. I have mentioned in previous posts that educators are not only teachers; educators are coaches, mentors, and parents alike. That being said, it is the responsibility of members of these groups that are categorized as “masculine” to be role models for the youth and carefully demonstrate what exactly it means to “be a man”. The focus should be taken off aggression and displays of dominance (perhaps better categorized as signs of compensation rather than masculinity) and more concentrated on compassion and commitment. This shift to a more appropriate definition of masculinity will help boys with behavior issues in school and help men with behavior issues in life.  

American Association of University Women. (1992). AAUW Report: How schools shortchange girls. American Association of University Women Foundation.

Conlin, M. (2003, May 26). The new gender gap. Business Week Online. Available:

Gurian, M., Henley, P., & Trueman, T. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently! A guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley.

Gurian, M., & Stevens, K. (2007). With boys and girls in mind.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). National Assessment of Educational Progress: The nation's report card. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2003). The PISA 2003 assessment framework. Author.

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