Boys and girls in the classroom

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

They’re not the same, boys and girls.

Some differences are easy to spot. Girls sometimes dot their i’s with little hearts. Boys punch each other and make jokes about bodily noises. Girls are interested in shoes, and in the feelings of others. Boys like robots, and missiles, and mud– ideally, a robot that launches mud missiles. At his sister.

And those recipes with sugar and spice, and frogs and snails? As a doctor, I’ll tell you, that’s more-or-less accurate.

There’s a huge number of studies quantifying the learning and school differences between girls and boys. Girls are better at reading; boys are better at math. Girls are better at art; boys are better at building missile launchers.

The problem is that a lot of this literature can be justifiably criticized for not really looking at root differences, but only at inferences, foregone conclusions,  and (possibly biased) observations. Are boys really fundamentally better at math, or are they pushed harder at math so they become better? Are the boys with artistic talent belittled, so their talents wither?

Is it nature, or nurture, or what?

Here’s a study to further stir up the pot: researchers looked at the academic success of preschoolers, relating it to how many girls versus boys were in their classrooms. For girls, it didn’t matter: girls in mostly-girl classes did as well as girls in mostly-boy classes. But for the boys, there was a strong association between academic success and sharing a classroom with mostly girls. Preschool boys who were surrounded by girls did far better than boys surrounded by more boys.

What does that mean for classrooms? Should academically-challenged boys get the advantage of classrooms with mostly girls? And what will educators do with all of the excess boys if they start designing some classes to be more girly?

The study also doesn’t try to determine if it is the presence of the girls, per say, that made the experience more academically successful for the boys, or if it was a difference in the way teachers interact with groups of mostly-boys versus mostly-girls.

At this point, studies like this don’t give us much practical information on improving education, but do highlight areas for further speculation and research. There’s no denying that there are some basic differences, and further good, unbiased, objective  studies like this one ought to be able to help us improve our educational system to take of the unique advantages of both boys and girls.

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