The Truth About Male vs. Female Brains—And What It Means For Your Students

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Photo: NeONBRAND via Unsplash

At the CTTL, we’re focused on using the best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science research to help teachers maximize their effectiveness and guide students toward their greatest potential. Doing that often means addressing what we like to call “Learning Myths”—those traditional bits of teaching wisdom that are often accepted without question, but aren’t always true. We also like to introduce new insight that can change the classroom for the better. In our Learning Myths series, we’ll explore true-or-false statements that affect teacher and student performance; for each, we’ll dive into the details that support the facts, leaving teachers with actionable knowledge that they can put to work right away.

True or False? Male and female brains are significantly different.

Answer: False! Though we observe subtle physiological differences between male and female brains, there is no evidence that these result in any cognitive or learning differences. More importantly, the normal range of variation within a gender is much greater than the differences between them. We don’t have significant evidence that might direct us to approach learning or teaching differently for different genders. (This myth can sometimes stem from a misreading of very specific research in books like The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain, which focuses largely on patients with autism.)

How might teachers put this insight into action?

In order to help students thrive, regardless of gender, teachers can embrace the concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change over the course of a person’s life. New neural connections form, strengthen, or are pruned away depending on what we ask the brain to do. New situations or environmental changes can lead to new kinds of brain activity; we can also make deliberate choices to strengthen existing neural pathways by practicing skills and building knowledge. Neuroplasticity has been shown to exist throughout adulthood, but young people are especially good at it; therefore, teachers have ample opportunity to build their students’ brains in the classroom.

Of course, some things are set from the start. Our genes do dictate part of our inherent cognitive strengths and weaknesses. With that in mind, you might think of neuroplasticity as an invitation to focus on the “nurture” half of the nature/nurture aspects of learning, even as you recognize that “nature” will have its say to some extent. Because each student must be treated as an individual case, and not grouped by gender, or any other social identifier, it’s important to remember that every young person has different learning needs. The important thing to remember is that every student can grow and change for the better; the path forward may take time to reveal itself, but you can help your students chart the course.

Making the most of neuroplasticity in your classroom is largely about mindset. Anytime we say “I am this kind of person, so I can do this, but I can’t do that,” we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As educators, our job is to help our students avoid the trap of a fixed mindset and encourage them to ask questions like:

  • “This is hard, and I’m not great at it yet. What’s a good strategy to help me improve?

  • “I’m having a hard time finding the right strategy. Who can I turn to for help?” (Hopefully, the first person who comes to mind in response to the second question is you, the teacher!)

As human beings, we’re always evolving. No matter how hard we might try to put ourselves into categories, our stubborn individuality keeps showing up! Luckily, when it comes to learning, that gives us a whole world of possibilities—if we’re willing to stay open to them.

Hungry for more actionable insight? The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

Posted on January 25, 2019 and filed under Learning Myths.