Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 2: Science Fact and Fiction

This is the second part of a three-part post on the "boy crisis" in education. Read the first part here.

If we want to describe what happens in an atomic event, we have to realize that the word "happens" can apply only to the observation, not to the state of affairs between two observations.
               Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (1958)

The most glaring fictional element in the "boy crisis" story is the science on which it is based. The story begins, factually enough, in the womb, where the male-to-be fetus is immersed in testosterone produced by its own inchoate testes in response to the dictates of DNA. That this testosterone bath–or its absence in female fetuses–results in genital and other physiological differences between the sexes (discrepancies in average body size and muscle mass, for instance) is not in dispute. But the rest of the story, the rhetorical leapfrogging from these differences to structural or functional differences in the brain and thence to distinct boy and girl psychology and behaviour–in other words the interpretive leap from sex to gender–is not warranted by the evidence.

Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young (researchers in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and sociomedical science, respectively) have pointed out the myriad ways in which neuroscientific evidence has been cherry-picked, misinterpreted or–in the case of conflicting findings–ignored by popular writers such as Michael Gurian and Christina Hoff Sommers who are intent on proving the gender difference theory. As an example, Fine has traced the way in which a single fMRI study of language processing in men and women became part of the "evidence" supporting the theory of the lateralized male brain–i.e., the notion that in men's brains there is less communication between hemispheres, and more specialization for certain functions than in women's brains. The study, conducted by four researchers at Yale and published in the journal Nature in the mid-nineties, involved imaging the brains of 19 men and 19 women while they performed three language tasks. Two of the experiments documented in the study showed no difference in lateralization, whereas the third (a rhyming task) showed a slight difference, with brain activity concentrated on the left side in men, but more evenly distributed between the hemispheres in women. Subsequent meta-analyses negated the findings of the one experiment, demonstrating its statistical irrelevance when placed in the bigger picture of studies of language lateralization. Yet, as Fine documents in lectures and in her book, Delusions of Gender, the Yale study has been cited 600 times in the scientific literature, and continues to be cited by popular writers (Hoff Sommers, for example) as evidence of girls' and boys' innately different verbal skills.

Other examples of misuse or cherry-picking of the science are not hard to find. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, for instance, popularizers of the difference theory claim that the corpus callosum, a band of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, is larger in females than males and that this difference is responsible in part for girls' and women's greater facility for empathy and multitasking. Here is what Michael Gurian and his colleagues Kathy Stevens and Kelley King have to say about this brain structure in in their 2008 book Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls:
In females, this bundle of nerves tends to be denser and larger than in males, resulting in increased "cross-talk" between the left and right hemispheres . . . And this means–girls are generally better at multitasking than boys, including watching and listening and taking notes at the same time. This gender difference may also help explain why girls tend to tune into their own and others' feelings and move emotional content more quickly into thought and verbal processes.
The authors helpfully go on to explain:
Combined with the hormonal changes during adolescence, the increased connections between thinking and feeling may account for the hypersensitivity and tendency to be dramatic that girls exhibit during adolescence.
There are two things to note here: first, the repetition of the claim that the corpus callosum is larger in females than in males, despite the fact–confirmable by even the most cursory Google search–that there are no sex-based size differences in this brain structure. But perhaps more troubling is the ease with which Gurian et al. pass from (pseudo-) scientific statement to analogy, to tired gender stereotype. It seems to me that there is a kind of weak metaphorical thinking going on in these kinds of leaps: interconnectivity is like multi-tasking, therefore girls who have interconnected brains must be better at multi-tasking. But one could just as plausibly assert that since (or if) boys brains are more lateralized, they should be better at performing separate tasks simultaneously in different "rooms" (my metaphor–you're welcome) of the brain, without disturbance or "noise" from other rooms. Bingo: boys are better multitaskers!

The problem is that once you depart from what is known–and in the case of neuroscience, a discipline still in its infancy, even what is known is often in dispute–the possibilities for wild extrapolation are endless. So you have Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, arguing that because of purported differences in adult women's and men's performance on a test of spatial navigation, the following is true:
[M]any middle-school boys seem to learn algebra better when you start with numbers, whereas many same-age girls seem to be more engaged if you start with a word problem. For example, if you are teaching equations in multiple variables, the typical 7th-grade boy will do better if you begin by asking "If x + 2y = 60, and 2x + y = 90, how do we solve for x and y?" But the typical 7th-grade girl will be more engaged if you begin by asking "If a sweater and two blouses cost $60, and two sweaters and a blouse cost $90, how much does each blouse and each sweater cost?"*
Reading this, one can't help but wonder which comes first, the "science" or the gender stereotype.

It's not as if there is no science, as opposed to "science," that might actually shed light on how both boys and girls learn or perform certain tasks. It's just that it's . . .  well, complicated, and not amenable to tidy gender-based generalizations. One complication is the inconvenient possibility, raised by some researchers, that sex differences in brain activity (for instance, in degrees of interconnectivity) may represent separate routes to the same behaviour. Another problem is that the research is continually evolving and yielding complicating or even contradictory answers to questions involving sex differences and learning. Take math and science ability, for instance. One supposed advantage of the testosterone-exposed, lateralized male brain is that it gives men a leg up in the more "systematizing" disciplines such as math and engineering. It's no coincidence, according to Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (author of The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism) that "professions such as maths, physics, and engineering, which require high sytstemising, are also largely male-chosen disciplines." But there's one not-so-slight problem with this argument: It turns out that that the brains of mathematically-gifted children and young adults exhibit higher degrees of hemispheric interconnectivity than their non-gifted peers. (See this review study.) So if brain differences were the reliable predictors of life trajectories that Baron-Cohen claims them to be, one would expect more girls–with their purportedly interconnected brains–to grow up to be mathematicians than boys. That this is not the case, suggests that something other than differences in brain structure or organization is at play.** And this something–call it experience, nurture, or socialization–is the missing piece in the "boy crisis" story and the science on which it relies.

The assumption underlying the gender difference story, as Cordelia Fine has pointed out, is that "in the brain" equals "natural" or "hard-wired." The question that gets elided by such an assumption is why a given ability or deficiency exists. Are the differences between the brains of men and women, or between those of any two individuals for that matter, innate in the sense of being genetically-determined, fixed, and immutable? It is increasingly clear to people who study the brain that the answer is, for the most part, no. That is not to say that boys and girls or men and women are neurologically identical. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, has identified three minor behavioural or cognitive differences that are presumed to result from the fetal brain's testosterone exposure (or lack thereof): differences in activity levels in boy and girl babies and discrepancies in spatial and verbal ability. In almost all other ways brain function does not differ according to sex. But these differences, which are exceedingly small when children are young, are amplified by experience. And as it turns out, experience trumps nature when it comes to the still mysterious workings of the human brain.

Or, to put it more accurately, experience becomes part of a particular brain's nature. This is not an entirely new idea: neuroscientists have long acknowledged the role that environment plays in brain development. Babies who are not spoken to will not learn to speak, for instance. But the older neuroscientific model held that after critical periods of change, the brain pretty much stayed the same throughout an individual's life. Advances in neuroimaging techniques, which allow for a more accurate (though still indirect) picture of brain structure and activity, have been able to demonstrate that the brain remains malleable or "plastic" throughout life, and that specific experiences can have lasting effects on brain function. So we now know that daily meditation induces both structural and functional changes in the brains of Buddhist monks; similarly, the brains of London taxi drivers, who have spent four years memorizing the intricate patterns of the capitol's streets, show measurable growth of gray matter in a part of the hippocampus associated with spatial navigation and memory.

What then, it is fair to ask, is the effect on girls' and boys' brains of years spent in a culture in which gendered expectations and experiences begin seconds after birth, with the donning of blue caps and pink caps and the proffering of girl toys and boy toys? How is it possible that children's brains would not be affected by a social environment in which any resistance to such dichotomization of human experience, exemplified by occasional stories of "genderless babies," provokes widespread cultural anxiety?

Which leads to the final point to be made about the "boy crisis" narrative: namely, that its conclusions, like the science on which it is based, are all wrong. Girls and boys are not the same, but the truly innate differences between them are few and small; to parent and teach them differently is to enable these small differences to be exaggerated and amplified. In order to close achievement gaps–which are the only non-fictional element of the "boy crisis" (and which will be discussed in part 3)–girls and boys must be taught in a manner that minimizes their respective differences and provides, as far as possible, true equality of opportunity, independent of gender.

Next: The Boy Crisis in Education, Part 3: Sex, Lies and Statistics

* From the website for Sax's book Why Gender Matters. Interestingly, this section is quoted as part of a series of corrections for his book, but although Sax points out the weakness of the scientific evidence, he stands by his point about the differences in the ways boys and girls learn algebra. Ironically, the more recent study he cites to back up his claim, concludes as follows: "Taken together, these results provide further support for the gender similarities hypothesis . . . and argue against the notion of innate gender differences in mathematical calculation."

** In the case of math ability, evidence of the effect of socialization is readily available. A recent study showed, for example that mothers talk about numbers and mathematical concepts far less frequently with their daughters than with their sons. Moreover, research conducted in the nineties, and confirmed by subsequent studies, has proven the statistical reality of "stereotype threat": that is, the situation wherein women informed before a math test that men usually score higher than women on the test actually perform less well than women told that there is no sex difference in test results.


  1. Dynamite! I'm looking forward to the next installment.

    I often see the contention that "school is designed for girls", and I honestly don't know what that means. It isn't designed for either of my girls, that's for sure. I guess it means that school is designed for a particular type of eager-to-please, other-directed, totally compliant girl. But there are many other kinds of girls in the world.

  2. Thanks, FedUpMom.

    School is not designed for my two girls either. I often wonder why boys didn't find school a problem -- or why no one talked about it being a particular problem for boys -- in the sixties and seventies. Has it really become more "feminized"? I doubt it. I think school is not really designed for *kids*. That's the problem!

  3. This boy thing wasn't as much of an issue in the 60s and 70s because schools were very, very different then. In my elementary school in the 70s, we had recess three times a day, in all weather (we had "indoor recess" if it was pouring rain). We were allowed to eat our entire lunch each day (in fact, we weren't allowed to throw food away) and we had no homework before fifth grade (and then it was minimal). I believe we took only one standardized test in the first eight years of school. We didn't even get letter grades until high school.

    Although it was a co-ed school, there were separate playgrounds for boys and girls. The boys' gym teacher (a man) would be on the boys' playground as coach/ref as the boys played kickball, flag football, etc. The girls' playground actually had more stuff than the boys' playground (foursquare, hopscotch, a jungle gym, slide, and a big sports field), but was more "free choice," with fewer structured/monitored sports. I have good memories of my elementary (grades 1 thru 8) school experience. And trust me, there was nothing hippy about the school I went to. It was a regular school like all the others at the time.

    Schools today, of course, are very different. The tone is much more serious and the behavioral expectations are much higher. Now the kids (at least in my kids' school) are expected to sit in a chair all day, usually with about ten minutes total recess (if that--no going out if it's too cold or too wet) and ten minutes lunch in the cafeteria. The rest of the day is a grind. Let's just say the boys aren't outside playing flag football for 45 minutes in the middle of every day.

  4. Anonymous -- Thanks for your comment. I think there may be a US/Canada difference here: In our (local) elementary schools there are still three full recesses daily (including a half hour lunch recess), plus something called DPA (daily physical activity) that the province (Ontario) mandates for 20 minutes on each day that kids don't have phys. ed. Yet we hear that schools are unfriendly to boys here too. I do think the situation you're describing is unfriendly to boys. But I also think it is unfriendly to girls -- to all kids. The problem seems to me to be one of increasing authoritarianism rather than "feminization," a problem related to (or compounded by) the absurd mania surrounding standardized tests. (See Chris Liebig's A Blog About School.) And I think the climate in authoritarian schools obsessed with raising test scores is not healthy for any kid. Our local schools are also more authoritarian than when I went to school. Here, too, kids are subjected to more standardized testing than in previous eras. It's part of the reason my daughters hate school, whereas I only mildly disliked it. :-)

  5. Ontario has changed in many districts. Ontario used to have 3 recesses - two fifteen minute outdoor recesses and an hour lunch, half of which was outside. So 90 minutes break total, 60 minutes outside, and a nicely spaced out day. This is what I had and I liked it.

    Now my district has a new model, the balanced school day. The parents I and my family know don't like it and fought it, but lost. What it is is two breaks per day 40 minutes in length, so that is a 10 minute loss in break time. About half of each break is allotted to eating (supposed to bring two small lunches), so kids get about 40 minutes outside per day - a 20 minute loss! The kids don't like it because they have to rush eating and barely get to play. The teachers like it because they only have to supervise one out of two breaks. I wonder why kids are so

    And schools are very authoritarian, even when I was at school in the 1990s, but even more so now. They are extremely unfriendly environments to all children, not just boys. As a girl in school I was not happy. Anything but complete and unquestioning obedience was unacceptable. I was a questioner and they don't like questioners. Now it is worse with so many zero tolerance policies - if some of these had been around back then, I would have been tossed out so fast, along with half the class.

  6. Wander099 -- Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that schools have become more authoritarian in recent decades, despite an increase in progressive rhetoric about "child-centred" teaching methods and "safe spaces." As a parent it's sad to see my kids disliking school even more than I did at their age! As for the balanced day, I've written about it in another post on this site; I agree that it is on balance (ha!) not great for kids.