- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

If a boy is daydreaming in his elementary school class, it’s not because he is bored. If he is fidgeting in his seat, it’s not because he is nervous. If it seems as though he would rather sleep than study, he’s probably not even really tired.

These are the findings of two recent books that explain the vast differences in boys’ and girls’ brains and how they affect learning.

“There are hard-wired differences in how boys and girls learn,” says Leonard Sax, a Maryland physician, psychologist and author of the book “Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences.”

“The more teachers know this, the better off we’ll be,” he says.

Parents and educators have long held the theory that boys and girls may distract one another in the classroom. However, Dr. Sax’s book, along with “The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life” by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, sheds light on the growing brain science as it relates to education.

Dr. Sax, also the executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, says that over the last two decades, great strides have been taken by educators to make sure girls get equal educational opportunities.

Now it is time to look at where the boys are, both authors say. Mr. Gurian, a family therapist and author of more than a dozen books, points out that the majority of children diagnosed with learning disabilities today are male, 80 percent of high school dropouts are boys, and boys are now in the minority on college campuses.

Dr. Sax’s book draws on dozens of medical studies that show the differences between boys’ and girls’ brains are subtle, yet profound. For example:

• Nervous system differences mean classroom temperature and lighting matter.

“Girls learn best in a room that is about 75 degrees,” says Dr. Sax. “Boys learn best in a room that’s a little cooler, about 69 degrees. If you go to any of the boys’ schools around here, you’ll notice that the rooms are cool. One headmaster told me, ‘If we turn up the heat, the boys will go to sleep.’”

As for lighting, girls learn best in a room that is lit with “warm” lighting, boys with “cool” tones, Dr. Sax says.

“The eye is organized differently,” he says. “We have a very reasonable possibility of improving performance for boys 20 percent just by changing lamps.”

• Girls hear better than boys. Dr. Sax cites a study of 60 newborns that found the girls’ hearing was 80 percent better than the boys’ hearing.

Those differences get bigger as the children get older, he says.

“Some boys who are diagnosed with [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] in a coed classroom don’t need medication,” says Dr. Sax. “They just need teachers who speak louder.”

Mr. Gurian says the recent mapping of the human genome has had a big impact for those who study gender and learning.

“We know that in the female brain, most of the girls have double the verbal centers,” Mr. Gurian says. “In the male brain, there is not as much sensory detail.”

There are steps parents and teachers can take to optimize learning for boys, both authors say. The first step for parents of young boys is to cut out “screen time” such as computers and video games that do nothing to enhance those verbal centers, Mr. Gurian says. Second, read out loud with boys a lot, making sure to link pictures and words.

Schools can become more boy-friendly by giving boys in younger grades writing assignments that let them draw what they mean first, Mr. Gurian says.

In boy-friendly classrooms, sitting should be optional, both authors say.

“Let them move around in a disciplined way,” says Mr. Gurian. “Let them fidget.”

Two area schools — Moten Elementary in the District and Twin Ridge Elementary School in Frederick County — are trying boys-only classrooms for upper elementary grades.

Twin Ridge instituted the pilot program for the 2004-05 school year after noticing a 10 percent gap in fifth-grade reading scores.

The fourth- and fifth-grade boys who opted into the class have an environment that features, among other things, friendly competition, the ability to move around and a wider variety of reading materials — such as “how things work” books that appeal to boys, says Twin Ridge teacher Beverly Lloyd, chairwoman of the school’s gender committee.

“The boys thrive on gentle competition,” Ms. Lloyd says. “We are not pitting them against one another. They are competing against themselves. How you phrase things to them makes a big difference.”

Ms. Lloyd also has noticed a change in the boys’ emotional capacity.

“We found that when the girls were removed from the class, the boys don’t have any trouble expressing themselves,” she says. “A very nurturing side of them comes out. It is wonderful to see that.”

Dr. Sax says that more than 200 public schools in the United States are now offering a single-gender option for select grades — up from about a dozen in 2001. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act has made it more possible to offer those options, he says.

Mr. Gurian says schools would be better served by training teachers and parents to optimize learning for boys, rather than trying to separate them from girls.

“It is unrealistic to think that single-sex schools are going to take over,” Mr. Gurian says. “But it should be an option. A more realistic option would be to separate them for some of the core subjects in middle school. Ten years from now, I think that hundreds of schools will see that wisdom.”

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