header image

Abigail James


Understanding the differences helps teachers provide a positive and encouraging environment for students.

Abigail James


abigail james lecture easse
Male and female brains do not develop in the same way and those differences are most apparent at birth (Cahill, 2006). For boys, the right side of the brain develops early; for girls, the left side of the brain develops first (Shucard & Shucard, 1990). Differential development in the right and left hemispheres continues at least until adolescence (Schmithorst, Holland, & Dardzinski, 2008). The language centre begins in the left por- tion of the cerebral cortex; this developmental difference is cited as the reason that girls, on average, have stronger verbal skills than do boys (Halpern, 2000; Kimura, 2000). The aver- age girl reads better than the average boy and this continues at least into early secondary school (Halpern, 2004).

Moreover, when learning takes place, the structure of the brain changes (Giedd, 2004; Schmithorst, et al., 2008) as a re- sult of brain plasticity responding to environmental pressures. By adulthood, there are no apparent gender differences in ver- bal intelligence (Halpern, 2000) even though in childhood, girls have significantly larger vocabularies than boys (Morisset, Bar-nard, & Booth, 1995). The belief is that while girls may have an advantage in verbal skills early on due to their more devel- oped left brain hemisphere, over time boys catch up as their brain matures and the hope is that exposure to verbal girls will expand their vocabularies.  The problem is that boys may see their relative verbal shortcomings as permanent and either not try to improve their verbal skills, or decide that verbal skills are not important.  Additionally the tests which indicate that the verbal differences have been resolved are designed to be gender neutral.

The hippocampus is a brain structure involved in memo- ry, specifically in turning short term memories into long term memories.  It has been noted that the hippocampus enlarges first in girls (Giedd, Castellanos, Rajapakse, Vaituzis, & Rapo- port, 1997; Yurgelun-Todd, Killgore, & Cintron, 2003).  Further, imaging research reveals that when asked to remember something, males tended to use the right side of the hippocam- pus with visual strategies, while females tended to use the left side of that same structure with verbal strategies (Frings et al.,2006). This observation may provide some explanation for the finding that females are better at verbal and episodic memory, based on some form of verbal recall, whereas males are bet- ter at memory tasks involving spatial or directional memory (Andreano & Cahill, 2009).

The amygdala has been linked to the excitatory portions of human behaviour (Gur, Gunning-Dixon, Bilker, & Gur, 2002) as well as processing and recognizing emotions. This node enlarges first in boys (Giedd, et al., 1997; Yurgelun-Todd, et al., 2003) and gender differences in structure are found at all ages (Gur, et al., 2002; Whittle et al., 2008). It is thought that the enlarged amygdala may be the basis for the observation that boys do better when they like the subject or the teacher (Freudenthaler, Spinath, & Neubauer, 2008).

The  prefrontal lobes of the brain begin to mature first in girls and the slower development in boys may be a contributor to the impulsive behaviour which is a hallmark of young males (Baron-Cohen, 2003; Giedd et al., 1999).  In females, this portion will have completed development by ages 18 to 20, whereas some males may not have completed development of this area until age 25 or perhaps even later (De Bellis et al.,2001; Njemanze, 2007).


The observation is that boys tend to learn best when they can see the information depicted pictorially – what is known as iconic learning – and when they can interact with the infor- mation – what is known as kinaesthetic learning (Honigsfeld & Dunn, 2003). Results from a study of memory and verbal skills indicated that boys had more difficulty remembering informa- tion which was spoken.  Speeding up the presentation of the information benefited girls but did not help boys, even those who were good at remembering verbal information from an auditory source (Grimley, 2007). Teachers and boys report that boys learn best when they are able to interact with the lesson (Vallance, 2002; Weaver-Hightower, 2003). A recent report in- dicates that for most boys, movement of hands or bodies may be a way for them to facilitate memory (Rapport et al., 2009)


Hearing – A test for hearing in newborns indicate that the ears of girls are more sensitive than the ears of boys, especially for high frequencies (Cassidy & Ditty, 2001).  Other research indicates that girls’ ears are more sensitive for soft sounds as well (McFadden, 1998). Additionally, little boys are more likely to suffer inner ear infections (Stenström & Ingvarsson, 1997) which means that while they have an infection, what they hear may be muffled and indistinct.  The important factor here is that the young boy with an ear infection may not be able to hear distinctly at the very time when he should be acquiring phonemic awareness.  The problem is that understanding of the basic sounds of language is necessary for the beginning of reading skills (Wolf, 2007).

Vision –When we focus on something, whether words on a page or the scene around us, our eyes are constantly moving around, enabling us to focus on different parts of our field of vision. These movements are called saccades and are larger and more rapid in dyslexics and in boys (Bednarek, Tarnowski, & Grabowska, 2006).  Probably related to this eye movement is the finding that girls are better than boys at perceptual speed (Kimura, 2000).

This is the skill that allows us to locate simi- lar objects in a field of many other objects or determine which figure is different among several Touch – While girls may have a greater sensitivity to touch than do boys (Velle, 1987), the observation of teachers is that boys learn best when they can physically interact with materials. A study of effective pedagogical approaches in boys’ schools indicated that boys learn better when the lesson involves hands- on activities (Reichert & Hawley, 2010).

Traditionally, the human response to stress has been de- scribed as fight-or-flight. Under the influence of adrenalin, the body pumps blood, oxygen, and sugar to the muscles and brain to allow the individual to respond quickly to a threat. The origi- nal research only used male subjects and all individuals showed the same response. Recently, it has been discovered that many females do not respond in that way and the female response is called tend-and-befriend (Taylor et al., 2000). Under the in- fluence of oxytocin, the female responds by pumping blood into the center of the body and the result is that the individual may find it difficult to move, think, or respond and needs af- filiation from friends to help cope (Turton & Campbell, 2005).

Praise and discipline of children will evoke the stress re- sponse in them and consequently, teachers need to be aware of the difference in how children react to such situations. Refer- ring to specific behaviors rather than using global terms such as “good” or “bad” will enable children to respond constructively.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is diagnosed in boys with much greater frequency than in girls, reported fre- quently at the rate of 9:1 (Gaub & Carlson, 1997).  There is little consensus as to the cause of this disorder as well as for treatment.  Lately, the validity of these diagnoses and, in fact of the condition itself, has come into question.  It has been suggested that female teachers misunderstand boys’ behaviour and use of language identifying normative male behaviour as abnormal (McIntyre & Tong, 1998).

Dyslexia, the inability to understand information when pre- sented verbally, may be related to slower left temporal lobe de- velopment and slower maturation of the brain, both of which are seen in males (Berninger, Nielsen, Abbott, Wijsman, & Raskind, 2008; Wolf, 2007). However, there are many differ- ent forms of dyslexia and neuroscience is discovering many different sites in the brain may be responsible.  One concern is that boys may be identified with dyslexia when they are sim- ply later to develop reading skills.

Dyspraxia is identified in boys more often than in girls and is a problem with writing, but is far more complicated and af- fects many areas of learning. Individuals with this disorder have problems with production of coordinated hand movements and find it difficult to translate thoughts into writing (Berninger& Fuller, 1992; Vlachos & Bonoti, 2003).  Poor handwriting skills have been found to contribute to language deficits espe- cially spelling and literacy development (Montgomery, 2008).

Dyscalculia is the learning disability with maths, and is found equally in boys and girls. It was once thought to be a problem with spatial skills, but is now thought to be a problem with memory for numbers and with understanding mathematical processes (Shalev, 2004).

Girls believe that success is due to the amount of effort that they put forth in preparing their work (Flammer & Schmid, 2003) and not just effort, but persistent effort. Teachers agree, point- ing out that the girl who succeeds works hard in school (Jones
& Myhill, 2004).  Additionally, girls believe that they are more likely to succeed in language based classes and in writing (Meece, Glienke, & Burg, 2006). This emphasis on effort together with the tend-and-befriend stress response may be responsible for the academic anxiety which is found more in girls than in boys.

How to prepare girls for math and science – Give scien- tific explanations, praise content not cover, support successes and do not let failures overwhelm them, provide role models.

Boys, on the other hand, believe that success is due to their ability to focus on a topic as well as their inherent ability in the subject (Flammer & Schmid, 2003). Additionally, boys believe that they are more likely to succeed in mathematics and science than in language based courses (Meece, et al., 2006). Stress for boys will improve their performance as will any situation which will link their emotions to the learning experience. Forexample, boys can have very good memories, but usually for subjects in which they are very interested and invested (Acker- man, Bowen, Beier, & Kanfer, 2001) indicating a connection between memory and emotions. An important motivating fac- tor for boys was whether or not they liked the activity or not (Freudenthaler, et al., 2008) as well as how well they liked the teacher (Koepke & Harkins, 2008; Van de gaer, Pustjens, Van Damme, & De Munter, 2007).

Classroom strategies for boys:  get them writing early us- ing technology , use visual sources of information, train their ears, use curiosity and competitiveness.


Cognitive differences do exist.  They may be brain based or as the result of interaction between brain and environment. Understanding the differences helps teachers provide a positive and encouraging environment for students.

Ackerman, P. L., Bowen, K. R., Beier, M. E., & Kanfer, R. (2001). Determinants of individual differences and gender differences in knowledge. Journal of  Educational Psychology, 93(4), 797-825.
Andreano, J. M., & Cahill, L. (2009). Sex influences on the neurobiology of learning and memory. Learning & Memory,
16(4), 248-266.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain. New York, NY: Basic Books. Bednarek, D., Tarnowski, A., & Grabowska, A. (2006). Latencies of stimulus-driven eye movements are shorter in dys-
lexic subjects. Brain and Cognition, 60, 64-69.
Berninger, V. W., & Fuller, F. (1992). Gender differences in or- thographic, verbal, and compositional writing: Implications for assessing writing disabilities in primary grade children. Journal of School Psychology, 30, 363-382.
Berninger, V. W., Nielsen, K. H., Abbott, R. D., Wijsman, E.,
& Raskind, W. (2008). Gender differences in severity of writing and reading disabilities. Journal of  School Psychology,
46, 151-172.
Cahill, L. (2006). Why sex matters for neuroscience. Nature Re- views Neuroscience, 7(6), 477-484.
Cassidy, J. W., & Ditty, K. M. (2001). Gender Differences among newborns on a transient otoacoustic emissions test for hearing. Journal of Music Therapy, 38(1), 28-35.
De Bellis, M. D., Keshavan, M. S., Beers, S. R., Hall, J., Frustaci, K., Masalehdan, A., Boring, A. M. (2001). Sex differences in brain maturation during childhood and adolescence. Cerebral Cortex, 11, 552-557.
Flammer, A., & Schmid, D. (2003). Attribution of conditions for school performance. European Journal of  Psychology of Education, 18(4), 337-355.
Freudenthaler, H. H., Spinath, B., & Neubauer, A. C. (2008).
Predicting school achievement in boys and girls. European
Journal of Personality, 22, 231-245.
Frings, L., Wagner, K., Uterrainer, J., Spreer, J., Halsband, U.,
& Schulze-Bonhage, A. (2006). Gender-related differences in lateralization of hippocampal activation and cognitive strategy. NeuroReport, 17(4), 417-421.
Gaub, M., & Carlson, C. (1997). Gender differences in ADHD: a meta-analysis and critical review. Journal of  the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 36(8), 1036-1045. Giedd, J. N. (2004). Structural magnetic resonance imaging of the adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sci-
ences, 1021, 77-85.
Giedd, J. N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. O., Castellanos, F. X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Raporport, J. L. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudi-
nal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10), 861-863.
Giedd, J. N., Castellanos, F. X., Rajapakse, J. C., Vaituzis, A. C.,
& Rapoport, J. L. (1997). Sexual dimorphism of the devel- oping human brain. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 21(1185-1201).
Grimley, M. (2007). An exploration of the interaction between speech rate, gender, and cognitive style in their effect on recall. Educational Psychology, 27(3), 401-417.
Gur, R. C., Gunning-Dixon, F., Bilker, W., & Gur, R. E. (2002).
Sex differences in temporo-limbic and frontal brain volumes of healthy adults. Cerebral Cortex, 12, 998-1003.
Halpern, D. F. (2000). Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Halpern, D. F. (2004). A cognitive-process taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(4), 135-139.
Honigsfeld, A., & Dunn, R. (2003). High school male and fe- male learning-style similarities and differences in diverse nations. The Journal of Educational Research, 96(4), 195-207.
Jones, S., & Myhill, D. (2004). Seeing things differently: teach- ers’ constructions of underachievemenet. Gender and Education, 16(4), 531-546.
Kimura, D. (2000). Sex and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: A Bradford Book/The MIT Press.
Koepke, M. F., & Harkins, D. A. (2008). Conflict in the class- room: gender differences in the teacher-child relationship. Early Education and Development, 19(6), 843-864.
McFadden, D. (1998). Sex Differences in the auditory system.
Developmental Neuropsychology, 14(2/3), 261-298.
McIntyre, T., & Tong, V. (1998). Where the boys are: Do cross- gender misunderstandings of language use and behavior patterns contribute to the overrepresentation of males in programs for students with emotional and behavioral disorders? Education and Treatment of Children, 21(3), 321-332. 
  Meece, J. L., Glienke, B. B., & Burg, S. (2006). Gender and mo-
tivation. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 351-373. Montgomery, D. (2008). Cohort analysis of writing in year 7
following two, four, and seven years of the National Liter-
acy Strategy. Support for Learning, 23(1), 3-11.
Morisset, C. E., Barnard, K. E., & Booth, C. L. (1995). Toddlers’ language development: Sex differences within social risk. Developmental Psychology, 31(5), 851-865.
Njemanze, P. C. (2007). Cerebral lateralisation for facial processing: gender-related cognitive styles determined using Fourier analysis of mean cerebral blood flow velocity in the middle cerebral arteries. Laterality, 12(1), 31-49.
Rapport, M. D., Bolden, J., Kofler, M. J., Sarver, D. E., Rai- ker, J. S., & Alderson, R. M. (2009). Hyperactivity in boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a ubiquitous core symptom or manifestation of  work- ing memory deficits? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37(4), 521-534.
Reichert, M., & Hawley, R. (2010). Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work - and Why. San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass.
Schmithorst, V. J., Holland, S. K., & Dardzinski, B. J. (2008).
Developmental differences in white matter architecture between boys and girls. Human Brain Mapping, 29, 696-710. Shalev, R. S. (2004). Developmental Dyscalculia. Journal of Child
Neurology, 19(10), 765-770.
Shucard, J. L., & Shucard, D. W. (1990). Auditory evoked po- tentials and hand preference in 6-month-old infants: pos- sible gender-related differences in cerebral organization. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 923-930.
Stenström, C., & Ingvarsson, L. (1997). Otitis-prone children and controls: a study of possible predisposing factors. Acta Oto-Laryngologcia, 117(1), 87-93.
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight- or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429.
Turton, S., & Campbell, C. (2005). Gender differences in be- havioral response to stress among university students. Jour- nal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 10(4), 209-232.
Vallance, R. (2002, 1st - 5th December). Empirical Study of  a Boys’ School and Boys’ Motivation. Paper presented at the Aus- tralian Association for Research in Education, Brisbane.
Van de gaer, E., Pustjens, H., Van Damme, J., & De Munter, A. (2007). Impact of attitudes of peers on language achieve- ment: gender differences. Journal of  Educational Research,101(2), 78-92.
Velle, W. (1987). Sex differences in sensory functions. Perspec- tives in Biology and Medicine, 30(4), 490-522.
Vlachos, F., & Bonoti, F. (2003). Explaining age and sex differences in children’s handwriting: a neurobiological approach. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 3(2), 113-123.
Weaver-Hightower, M. B. (2003). Crossing the divide: bridging the disjunctures between theoretically oriented and practice- oriented literature about masculinity and boys at school. Gender and Education, 15(4), 408-423.
Whittle, S., Yap, M. B. H., Yücel, M., Fornito, A., Simmons, J. G., Barrett, A., Allen, N. B. (2008). Prefrontal and amygdala volumes are related to adolescents’ affective be- haviors during parent-adolescent interactions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,105(9), 3652-3657.
Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the Squid. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Yurgelun-Todd, D. A., Killgore, W. D. S., & Cintron, C. B. (2003). Cognitive correlates of medial temporal lobe devel- opment across adolescence: a magnetic resonance imaging study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 96, 3-17.

Download pdf >>>
Understanding the differences helps teachers provide a positive and encouraging environment for students.