If only teachers did ignore brain difference theory

27th January 2006 at 00:00
In two weeks' time I am giving a talk to students at Roehampton university on boys' underachievement. Several will be aware of the argument that boys'

brains work in different ways to girls'. After all, how else can we explain why boys learn to read later and with more difficulty than girls?

In her article on this page last week Rachel Gallagher wrote of prominent psychiatrists and psychologists who have provided compelling evidence on brain differences between the genders. Yet, she says, teachers are not using the research to inform their teaching of boys. How I wish this was so.

I am hoping to convince students that brain difference theories do not help teachers. It could be an uphill struggle. A recent study by myself and colleagues at London Metropolitan and Newcastle universities found that 36 out of the 51 primary teachers interviewed said they differentiated between boys and girls for teaching andor management purposes. Several said they did this because boys are kinaesthetic learners.

So what shall I tell the students? I will explain to them that there is a strong voice in the boys' underachievement debate that uses biological difference to explain differences in gender and achievement. It is an effective voice because it offers simple solutions (for example, sit boys next to girls to enable girls' language skills to rub off on them). It is a misleading voice because it is selective in what it holds up as "incontrovertible" truths. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen makes it clear in his book The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain that he is not talking about boys' and girls' brains as such and stresses the significance of socialisation. It is an uninformed voice because teachers know that there are more character and ability differences within a group of boys (or girls) than between boys and girls.

It is accurate to claim that boys tend to learn to read later and with more difficulty than girls but this is not so simply explained by claiming that brains work differently according to gender. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development findings have shown so clearly, boys'

literacy problems are an international issue but some boys do well in relation to girls (including those in England). The key to success for all pupils lies in their social situation. What teachers can do is set aside calls to devise teaching approaches based on "brain difference" and respond to the research evidence that shows children learn best through exposure to a range of teaching and learning strategies.

Christine Skelton is professor of education at Roehampton university

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