Researchers indicate that teachers (unintentionally) give more classroom attention and more self-esteem building encouragement to boys than to girls over the course of the school day.
One 20-year study showed elementary and middle school boys received 8 times more classroom attention than girls! When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, the female students were told to raise your hand if you want to speak. When boys did not volunteer responses, the teachers were more likely to encourage boys over the girls to give an answer or an opinion (Sadker and Sadker, 2004). Absent from the study were the factors of the biological differences between the sexes, factors which could justify the 8 to 1 ratio of difference in attention given to boys over girls.
Due to differences in visual organization on a biological level, a girl’s vision is different from a boy’s. The composition of the male eyes allows for natural attunement to motion and direction. That is, boys interpret the world as objects moving through space.
In a class discussion, boys gravitate to the teacher-like object. The more a teacher moves around the room, the higher the stimulation for a boy, possibly leading to more learning. For girls it is almost the opposite. The teacher’s constant movement can be emotionally disconnecting to the teacher-girl relationship, causing a reduction in interaction.
In addition, girls are more focused when sitting. Boys need to move around. Further, during a classroom discussion, in order to get attention, boys typically stand up in their desk area and raise their hand enthusiastically. When that doesn’t work, they switch hands and call out for attention. In short, the more a boy moves around, the more blood flows to his brain, which not only helps him focus and increase learning potential, but also draws the teacher’s attention.
Furthermore, girls hear differently. When teachers speak in a high tone, girls often interpret this as yelling. Girls think people are angry and can shut down emotionally when voices are raised. Also, girls have a more finely attuned aural structure, which means they can hear higher frequencies than boys so they are more attuned to sounds.
Teachers need to be aware of their voice levels and tones. Conversely, boys enjoy discussions that are more matter of fact, loud and direct. Also, since girls hear better than boys, teachers often (intuitively) sit boys in the front of the classroom, which would allow for more attention getting and recognition for boys. Conversely, girls work best when sitting in a circle facing each other and find it more comfortable to learn in a group setting. Instead, boys often excel in a traditional class structure with desks lined in rows, which could support their more competitive energies and attention getting behaviors.
Moreover, girls do not like to take risks and often underestimate their abilities. Girls respond to stress as a threat which drives blood to the gut rather to the brain, placing them in a fight or flight persona. However, for boys, it’s the opposite. They love to take risks and almost always overestimate their abilities.
Lastly, another possible reason for the 8 to 1 statistic is that boys tend to ask for reasons to support an argument and need to focus on finding the answer right away; girls are more sensitive to the emotions of others, especially when discussions center around problem solving, so they actually may become more reticent in a class discussion and simply wait their turn.
Attaching biological learning differences between boys and girls could change the entire perception of how boys and girls learn, gradually influencing the 8 to 1 statistic. Whatever the reasons, teachers and parents should take note of the differences, creating greater learning opportunities for both genders.
*Dr. David Sortino is a psychologist and currently Director of Educational Strategies, a private consulting company catering to teachers, parents, students. Dr. Sortino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his blog:davidsortino.com