PTA Coffee Break: Closing out with talk on gender differences

PTA's Coffee Break hosted Michael Gurian for its year-end program at the Aliso Creek Inn on May 23.

Co-founder of the Gurian Institute and author of many best-selling books, Gurian spoke on the topic of gender differences in brain structure, activity and learning behavior. There were many "aha" moments for the audience, particularly among the educators present.

Gurian focused primarily on describing differences that are based on "nature" vs. "nurture." Nature-based differences show up on SPECT and PET scans and are universal across various cultures. Nurture-based differences are culturally-dependent gender roles which are taught. Gurian cautioned that all of his statements on gender differences are demonstrable in 80% of the population and would be less characteristic for the remaining 20%.

According to Gurian, the first step of gender differentiation occurs at the moment of conception, when a fetus has either an extra X or a Y chromosome. For boys, at five weeks the mother's body is stimulated by the Y chromosome to release a bath of testosterone at a level 10-20 times the amount present for girls.

This reformats the male brain wherein words are processed only on the left side (girls' brains encode verbally on both sides of the brain and feeling and sensations are also present on both sides). The male brain is actually stimulated by spatial mechanicals and visual graphics, and this becomes very important when engaging boys in learning. Boys relate through mediating objects and movement, and even boys' eyes are more sensitive to movement.

Within any class of 25, one would find four to five boys whose brains would not easily function within the less spatial, more verbally-oriented system. It is important to engage the physical/spatial aspect in boys; for example President Obama had been featured in the news talking policy on the front lawn of the White House while throwing a football around.

Boys gain from being physical (and spatially stimulated) before learning in the classroom, and it would be even better if this kind of learning could be integrated within the classroom. (This is why boys are so mesmerized by video games: They are spatial and visual and give an added benefit of bestowing a sense of concrete accomplishment.)

Gurian emphasized that these kinds of skewed learning environments can be easily corrected through a different approach. For example, boys tend to think visually. When given an assignment to write up their summer vacation, chances are that some will come up blank, and then their stress hormones will kick in making it even more challenging.

By changing the assignment to creating a visual "story-board" of their summer vacations, the boys can easily access their experiences and then translate them verbally once the visuals are locked in. Other methods which could help boys improve classroom performance are to provide regular opportunities to be physical, either through breaks outside or through allowing tools developed for special education. Gurian's point was that these accommodations are appropriate for boys beyond the tightly defined subgroup of special education.

Gurian then showed a short piece created by the Gurian Institute, which had some troubling statistics about boys: 70% of D's and F's are given to boys. Seventy-four percent of kids with "learning disabilities" are boys. Fifty-eight percent of the mentally retarded are boys. Nationally, 16.2% of boys do not graduate from high school. There were more gruesome statistics about the percentage of prisoners who were male. And on it went.

But Gurian offered a hopeful suggestion in that through understanding the way the male brain is stimulated to learn, we can develop strategies to teach which will help boys learn and be as successful as girls have been through more traditional verbally-oriented teaching methods. He has worked with schools such as Crespi Carmelite in L.A. (which operate with more cross-gender teaching strategies) and his Institute trains teachers to modify their methods to reach the learning styles of male brains.

Gurian also spoke about the impact of the female hormone oxytocin in the adolescent girl social dynamic. When girls are stressed, their levels of this "tend and befriend" hormone go up. This causes intense bonding among younger girls, particularly around puberty. Boundaries blur. But when the bonds strain and break, the reactions are extreme.

Oxytocin also plays a role in males. It goes up in males when they are involved in mating, but falls back down to typically lower male levels afterward. Hence, girls are easily confused by their boyfriend's reactions after they have been intimate. They remain extremely bonded while the boys seemingly move on with little sense of the bond.

Altogether, this final Coffee Break of the year again offered some thought-provoking ideas, and many parents left wondering how our schools could better integrate this understanding of the mechanics of the male-female brain difference into our own educational system. The conversation has begun; it will be interesting to see where it leads.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World