Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Who We Are and What We Do
How to Use This New Edition
Success Stories Since the Missouri Pilot
Innovating with Single-Sex Options
Moving Forward at the Nexus of Science and Practice
PART I - How Boys and Girls Learn Differently
Chapter 1 - How the Brain Learns
The Wide Spectrum of Gender in the Brain
How the Brain Works
How Boys’ and Girls’ Minds Are Different
Why the Brains Are Different
Chapter 2 - How Brain-Based Differences Affect Boys and Girls
Areas of Learning-Style Difference
Learning Differences and the Intelligences
Applying the Intelligences to Brain-Based Gender Difference
The State of Boys and Girls in Our Schools
Creating the Ultimate Classroom
PART 2 - Creating the Ultimate Classroom for Both Boys and Girls
Authors’ Note
Chapter 3 - The Ultimate Preschool and Kindergarten Classroom
The Foundation of Early Learning: Bonding and Attachment
Day Care, Preschool, and Kindergarten Community Building
Nutrition and Learning
Dealing with Aggressive Behavior
Discipline Techniques
The Outdoor Classroom
Directing Boys and Girls to Academic Excellence
Special Education
Use of Psychotropic Medications
Chapter 4 - The Ultimate Elementary School Classroom
Structural Innovations
Bonding and Attachment in Elementary Learning
How to Provide Discipline in the Elementary Classroom
Motivation Techniques
Character Education
Dealing with Cruelty, Hazing, and Violence
Innovations for Academic Excellence
Special Education, Learning Disabilities, and Behavioral Disabilities
Cooperative and Competitive Learning
Chapter 5 - The Ultimate Middle School Classroom
Structural Innovations
Bonding and Attachment
How to Provide Discipline in the Middle School Classroom
Character Education
Innovations for Teaching Language Arts and Math and Science
Special Education
Chapter 6 - The Ultimate High School Classroom
Bonding and Attachment
Structural Innovations
Innovations to Improve Academic Learning
Special Education
What High School Students Are Saying: Their Fears

The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction
in Their Lives
Nurture the Nature: Understanding and Supporting Your Child’s Unique
Core Personality
The Wonder of Children (previously published as The Soul of the Child)
The Wonder of Girls
The Wonder of Boys
A Fine Young Man
The Good Son
What Stories Does My Son Need? (with Terry Trueman)
What Could He Be Thinking?
Love’s Journey
Mothers, Sons and Lovers
The Prince and the King
The Minds of Boys (with Kathy Stevens)
The Boys and Girls Learn Differently Action Guide for Teachers
(with Arlette C. Ballew)
Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls—Elementary Level: A Workbook for Educators
(with Kathy Stevens and Kelley King)
Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls—Secondary Level: A Workbook for Educators
(with Kathy Stevens and Kelley King)
Successful Single-Sex Classrooms: A Practical Guide to Teaching Boys and Girls Separately
(with Kathy Stevens and Peggy Daniels)
Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business
(with Barbara Annis)
For Young Adults
Understanding Guys
From Boys to Men
Fiction and Poetry
The Miracle
An American Mystic
The Odyssey of Telemachus
As the Swans Gather
By the Gurian Institute
It’s a Baby Boy! (with Adrian Goldberg and Stacie Bering)
It’s a Baby Girl! (with Adrian Goldberg and Stacie Bering)


To Gail, Gabrielle, and Davita Gurian
To all the boys and girls in preschool through twelfth grade,
and to Bob Henley
To Patty Nasburg and Jesse Trueman
And to the students to have kept us young and interested and
truly involved in learning and teaching
To Kevin and Mike Roe
To the parents and teachers who are working hard to give their sons and
daughters every chance to have successful lives

The authors wish to gratefully acknowledge both the editing and production staff at Jossey-Bass. First and foremost, thanks are due to Alan Rinzler, one of the finest editors in the business. It is an honor to work with a person of his caliber, and to work along with his colleagues Lesley Iura, Nana Twumasi, Carol Hartland, and so many others. Special thanks are also extended to Debra Hunter, whose confidence in this work has made it possible. Without Susan Schulman, our literary agent, this book would not have found a smooth course. Thanks to her and her staff as well.
Many thanks to all the teachers around the world who have made this project possible. The Gurian Institute network of certified trainers are helping boys and girls everywhere by sharing their knowledge and experience with educators and parents so that they can create classrooms and homes where boys and girls can learn in their own wonderful, unique ways. Special thanks to Kelley King, Don Stevens, Dakota Hoyt, Lynn Ritvo, Peggy Daniels, and Claudia Sherry.
Special thanks, also, to the teachers and administrators of these school districts in Missouri and Kansas:
Grandview, Missouri
Hickman Mills, Missouri
Independence, Missouri
Kansas City, Kansas
Park Hill, Missouri
St. Joseph, Missouri
Special thanks to the superintendents of these districts, who adjusted their own and their district’s busy schedules to plan and implement the Michael Gurian Institute in Kansas City, Missouri: Gayden Carruth, Dan Colgan, Jerry Cooper, Ray Daniels, John Martin, David Rock, and Robert Watkins. This book simply could not have been written without the leadership of these individuals and their staff, and the participation of the teachers in the actual daily occupations of the institute. Unfortunately, the teachers are too many to name, but each has our thanks, and many appear in the pages of this book.
Deepest thanks go also to Russell Thompson, Susan Anderson, Rita Shapiro, Jerry Cooper, and Michael Boothe, the staff of the Missouri Center for Safe Schools, who gave their consistent support and leadership. Administrative assistant Rose Ford went beyond expectations to complete this project—thank you, Rose!
Among the Spokane, Washington, staff, we give special thanks to Stacie Wachholz, who is administrative assistant extraordinaire. Her contributions have been enormous. Many thanks also to Sister Mary Eucharista, Abe Wenning, Sara Stoker, Kristi Harju, and Marie Graham, as well as to Nate and Katherine and the other student assistants and research assistants who contributed so wisely to this book.

Welcome to the tenth-anniversary edition of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! We hope you will delve deeply into this book, and use it to assess whether your schools, families, and communities are creating environments in which both boys and girls have the opportunity to be successful and develop a life-long love of learning.
A lot has happened in the ten years since the book’s initial publication. The premise exclaimed in the book’s title—that boys and girls learn differently—has now become generally accepted as reality, based on research that increasingly supports the existence of discrete differences between the brains of males and females. The Gurian Institute is proud to be among the first organizations to apply this gender science on a large scale to the education of children. Our initial goal was to help both educators and parents translate the brain-based theory of gender difference into daily strategies to assist teachers and parents in helping children grow, learn, and succeed in school and life.
Now, ten years later, schools and districts around the world are receiving training in how boys and girls learn differently and altering learning environments to respond to the needs of each child. They are thus helping both boys and girls understand themselves and their own learning abilities in depth. The Gurian Institute has gone forward from the initial pilot study reported in this book’s original edition to train more than fifty thousand teachers in more than two thousand schools and districts. Other individuals and agencies have developed programs to provide training in how boys and girls learn differently as well, and our efforts join these in extending training worldwide.
Writing this in 2010, I can see the development of a social movement over the last decade, one based in grassroots parental and educational passion united with science-based theory and practice—a movement that has spread into academics, publishing, and the media. If you Google “gender differences” or “boys and girls learn differently,” I think you’ll see the same thing. There is a vast new array of research and commentary that was not heretofore available.
Between ten and twenty years ago, when I was doing the initial research for this book, it was nearly impossible to get attention for (1) boys’ issues in school, and (2) how boys and girls learn differently, except in the context of tragic school shootings, all of which were perpetrated by boys. In this last decade, however, boys’ issues in school are growing in cultural interest, and the science of male-female brain difference is being reported constantly. A powerful nexus of social change in gender studies has been building, one in which girls’ and boys’ issues can be dealt with concurrently. It is wonderful to see our culture developing its new gender dialogue with the ability, sense of urgency, and elegant science available to help both girls and boys equally.

Who We Are and What We Do

As lead author of the both the first edition and this new edition, I want to provide you with information about how to use this book, thank my coauthors of the original edition, and introduce you to Kathy Stevens, the coauthor of this new edition.
The initial edition of this book was coauthored with former school superintendent Patricia Henley, who contacted me about creating a “Gurian Institute Pilot Program” through her directorship of the Missouri Center for Safe Schools. We were later joined by Terry Trueman, a therapist specializing in adolescent issues, who won a Prinz Honor Award for his young adult novel, Stuck in Neutral.
Patricia formed a research team to bring to the public my initial gender/brain-based child development theory (first published in The Wonder of Boys) via practical applications in schools. We hoped to understand more deeply the applicability of male-female brain difference theory in the lives of children and students themselves. We did not have available to us a decade of corroborating research because the theory itself was new and had not been substantially tested. The six-school district pilot program that Patricia set up in Missouri was the initial test.
As you’ll see from the research and strategies in this book, that pilot was successful. Over a two-year period, through Patricia’s guidance of the Missouri pilot, we proved both the initial guiding theory (that boys and girls learn differently, for reasons of both nature and nurture) and its initial applications theory (that if teachers are trained in male-female brain difference they will innovate successfully to raise student achievement, close achievement gaps, and lower discipline referrals). In our pilot programs, teacher effectiveness and student achievement increased while discipline referrals and behavioral problems decreased.
When the two-year pilot study concluded, the Gurian Institute’s collaboration with the Missouri districts, Patricia Henley, and Terry Trueman was completed, but it was clear that the success that teachers and families were having was substantial. My publisher, Jossey-Bass/ John Wiley and I asked Dr. Henley and Mr. Trueman to join us in publishing Boys and Girls Learn Differently! We wanted to provide, in written form for teachers and parents, the theoretical and practical research-based strategies that we had gathered.
The initial edition of the book came out in 2001, and was well received. Most important, it was well used! Teachers and parents formed study groups, schools asked for experiential professional development, school districts began to look toward systemic change, and, across the country, educators and parents innovated. This successful “usability” began to make the theories and practical tools in the book a more widespread phenomenon. I am grateful to Patricia Henley, her University of Missouri-Kansas City staff and colleagues, and Terry Trueman, for all their work in providing the initial energy and acumen for this phenomenon.
Just after the publication of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! I met Kathy Stevens. Kathy is an educator and worked for two decades in both education and the nonprofit sector designing, implementing, and directing programs related to early childhood, youth and adult corrections, diversity, and issues affecting women and girls. Also, she is the mother of two sons, both of whom struggled through school. Her youngest son had an especially difficult time conforming to the traditional institutional classroom.
In Kathy, I found an educator who was passionate about helping schools and families understand how to create boy- and girl-friendly environments at home and in school. Kathy and I began to collaborate, and she gradually helped form the new Gurian Institute (www.gurianinstitute.com). Now the executive director of the Institute, Kathy guides professional development for educators and training programs for parents which are being delivered across the United States and in many international locations. Working with the Gurian Institute training corps—now more than seventy certified trainers in the United States, Canada, Qatar, Shanghai, South Korea, Australia, and France—Kathy shepherds work with schools, parents, and youth organizations to help them implement systemic change. In her words, “This work isn’t giving schools and families yet another thing to do, but giving them a new way to make the important things they are already doing most effective.”
Kathy and I are joined in this work by Associate Director Kelley King and our staff and trainers. This new Gurian Institute has taken the initial theory about boys and girls learning differently into a larger field. This expansion has occurred both in schools and districts and in publications and books. Kathy has cowritten The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life. Kathy, Kelley, and I have cowritten Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls: Elementary and Secondary Level; and Kathy, Peggy Daniels (a Gurian Institute Master Trainer), and I have cowritten Successful Single-Sex Classrooms.
Each of these publications—part of our Institute’s collaboration and partnership with Jossey-Bass/John Wiley—is aimed toward filling in new pieces of the educational puzzle as we discover them in our training, consulting, and professional development work. In these books as well as this new edition of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! you will see anecdotes, stories, and strategies from teachers, principals, parents, and other professionals just like you. In this work, there is definitely a feeling that we are all in this journey together.

How to Use This New Edition

As you read this new edition, you will find both the best of the initial pilot study, and many new pieces of the educational puzzle. For this edition, Kathy has joined me in revising the initial book to include:
1. A new study guide for teachers.
2. A new study guide for parents.
3. New success data, both quantitative and qualitative, from schools and school districts in which we’ve worked since the initial study (these follow in this Introduction and also appear in various chapters of the book).
4. Updated brain research information, mainly in Chapters One and Two.
5. Updated Notes and References, including new books, studies, and research in the Notes section at the end of the book.
6. Changes to the original text to corroborate updated scientific and in-the-field findings over the last decade.
As you read this book, please feel free to move between chapters and study guides in order to augment your learning and application of the work. In the various chapters, you may meet some teachers, principals, and professionals who have moved from their initial schools, changed jobs, or passed away. No matter where they are now, if their innovations have been corroborated by other schools and professionals in the last decade, we have left them in this edition.
If you are a student of brain science, you may notice something Kathy and I noticed as we prepared this new edition. Although we have added new science and brain facts as we’ve learned them over the last decade, still, nearly all of this book’s brain science—garnered over ten years ago—is still applicable or has been corroborated further and increased in applicability. Since the original publication, we’ve learned of over a hundred structural and functional differences in male and female brains that affect learning and behavior. We’ve also learned about chromosome markers (genetic material) that affect both genderbrain organization in utero (before our boys and girls are born) and brain activation over the twenty or more years of childhood and adolescence. Both genetics and brain activation are crucial to boys’ and girls’ learning, and just as important as nurture and culture. Our scientific knowledge has increased in the last ten years, but the initial gender science findings of the 1980s and 90s, reported in our initial edition and applied by the teachers and parents in Missouri and elsewhere, have stood up to a decade of scrutiny.
Because of the strength of both the initial science and the initial school strategies, Kathy and I have not altered what did not need to be altered. The original work still shines through in this edition. We have, however, made changes where we felt they were necessary, both to catch up to new science, update Web sites and references where possible, and add new success data and new strategies where needed.
Both in leaving things alone and in updating, we have tried not to repeat our work in the books listed earlier in this Introduction. Thus, as you read this book, please know that pieces of the puzzle you might find missing in this book may well be filled in through our other publications.

Success Stories Since the Missouri Pilot

Our publications since the first edition of this book, as well as this tenth-anniversary edition, grow from success that schools have had in creating what we call “the ultimate classroom” for both boys and girls. Successes during the initial pilot program in Missouri included raised grades, better test scores, and lowered discipline referrals. You’ll read about some of these in this new edition. Since then, success rates in other schools and districts have grown. Although educational systems are dynamic—and thus, some schools in this book have seen changes in personnel and programming—new success stories have emerged around the country. Douglass Elementary School, in Boulder, Colorado, is one example.
In August 2004, the faculty of Douglass studied their achievement data and noted a gap in achievement between boys and girls in reading and writing. The faculty, led by principal Kelley King (now associate director of the Gurian Institute), decided to establish a school improvement goal to close the gap through the implementation of instructional strategies shown to be effective in accommodating the brain differences of boys and girls. The teachers and principal used the original edition of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! as a book study and received professional development in strategies for teaching boys and girls.
After one year, Douglass closed its gender literacy gap, and saw other improvements in academic areas, including special education. Douglass was later featured in a cover story in Newsweek on boys’ issues in school, and on the Today Show. Douglass Elementary provides a powerful example of how school success can reach into the larger culture to help educate not just the students and families in Boulder about what boys and girls need, but other communities, schools, and families around the world.
Similar success occurred at the school district level in Minnesota. When the Edina School District in Minneapolis, Minnesota, decided to work on gaining greater knowledge and training on how boys and girls learn differently, they used our book as one of their resources. Dr. Ken Dragseth, the superintendent, contracted with the Gurian Institute staff to facilitate professional development in issues facing boys and girls, including practical applications of instructional strategies that focus on gender differences. Over a three-year period, Edina Public Schools saw qualitative and quantitative improvement in student performance. Dr. Dragseth credits gender-friendly instructional theory and techniques with helping Edina to significantly improve student achievement and to meet the individual needs of both genders. He reported to us that when compared with their surrounding districts, Edina’s seventh- and tenth-grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment Reading and Math mean scores were higher for both boys and girls. The district also noticed the gap between boys and girls beginning to close. Additionally, the district found that teachers’ and parents’ heightened awareness of gender differences in learning styles and appropriate strategies was well received by students themselves.
For more success stories over the last decade, you can go to www.gurianinstitute.com/success.

Innovating with Single-Sex Options

A fascinating and fruitful area of success that has developed over the last decade is the single-sex option. In the first edition of this book, the Missouri pilot program utilized single-sex options, especially in middle school. Since that time, the movement has been growing. In 2008, Title IX rules were changed by the Bush administration to include more school freedom to try single-sex options. Over the last decade, nationwide and internationally, a continued increase in the boy-girl literacy gap has caused schools to consider separating boys and girls in reading and writing classes. Likewise, the goal of helping girls be more successful in math, science, and technology has led to more girls-only classes in these subjects in both public and private schools.
These gaps are exacerbated in some urban communities. In 2007, the Atlanta Public Schools contacted Kathy and our team about providing an intensive professional development program for two new schools—the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy and the B.E.S.T. Academy at Ben Carson. Both schools opened with sixth-grade single-sex classes and plan to expand one grade each year until they include grades 6-12. Faculty, administrators, and parents participated in training and professional development for three years. Kathy led our team in delivering training, observing classrooms, providing one-on-one teacher mentoring, designing a gender-specific advisory program, and working with parents to help both schools create and sustain boy- and girl-friendly classrooms.
We are thrilled to report that both the boys’ and girls’ academies achieved “adequate yearly progress” in year two, and both schools are now Gurian Institute Model Schools. You can learn more about their success, and the success of other single-sex programs at www.gurianinstitute.com/Success. We will also feature other schools throughout this new edition.

Moving Forward at the Nexus of Science and Practice

The issue of success is a crucial one. Especially in this new decade, as our culture works hard to build good schools on successful curricula and programming, it is important to be able to say something we couldn’t yet say when the original edition of this book was published: that the initial two-year pilot’s success has now been corroborated by schools and districts around the world.
When you and I and anyone reading this book were in graduate school, or in teacher certification programs, or in whatever system in which we initially learned to teach and to parent, we approached kids on the premise that each student is an individual. This was good learning, and to a great extent it makes us the good teachers and caregivers that we are today. But it lacked a component that we sorely miss the longer we actually teach in the classroom or raise kids: it lacked sensitivity and clarity about what individual girls need and what individual boys need—the most fundamental form of differentiation within us and our children was, for too long, ignored.
Helping professionals and parents understand their boys and girls, and then going even further—to help them learn practical strategies and systemic changes that successfully teach children—is now an important part of the social conversation. Although there is immense overlap between male and female brains, there are also many distinct differences in learning needs, and inclusion of these differences in teacher and parent training is a crucial part of creating educational systems that work well.
Ultimately, my team and I hope you will read this book from this perspective of importance. The work you are doing for boys and girls—work we hope you’ll find supported and corroborated in this book—is being done at a crucial nexus of science and practice. You are thus involved not only in the work of helping individual boys and girls, but also in furthering our civilization’s dialogue regarding such key themes as “What is a good school?” “How can science help education?” “What is an effective teacher?” and “What do our students need?” Along with everyone you meet in this book, you are involved in a practical response to the greater call of humanity, one inherent in teaching and parenting: the call to help our children become the men and women we need them to be as they grow up and seek to serve their families, communities, and civilization.
September 2010
Michael Gurian
Spokane, Washington

How Boys and Girls Learn Differently
Our brain has always defined the education profession, yet educators haven’t really understood it or paid much attention to it. . . Our brain is at the edge of understanding itself!
—ROBERT SYLWESTER, A Celebration of Neurons
Males and females are equal in their common membership of the same species, humankind, but to maintain that they are the same in aptitude, skill or behavior is to build a society based on a biological and scientific lie.

How the Brain Learns
Inherent Differences Between Boys and Girls
Boys and girls are different, and that’s the truth. When I was a young teacher this thing started of saying they weren’t different, and I kept my mouth shut, but I raised three kids of my own and I taught hundreds and I just didn’t believe what I was hearing. Now I’m so glad we’re all talking about the differences between boys and girls again.
NANCY LYNN TAUGHT NEARLY EVERY GRADE IN HER THIRTY-EIGHT-YEAR CAREER. We met her when she was a “retired” volunteer (“I’m retired but busier at school than ever!”), providing reading tutorials and co-teaching learning disabled students. She was a small, thin woman of sixty-nine whom the kids called “Mrs. Lynn,” never “Nancy.” Though tiny in stature, she commanded respect, and she moved among her students with grace and confidence.
She spoke the words with which this chapter begins at a teacher training. “I’m not too old to keep learning,” she told us. Nancy was a kind of leader at the training. She told us some poignant stories.
She told us about a boy who just couldn’t sit still. To help him stop getting in constant trouble for his fidgeting, she decided to ask him to run errands for her. This gave him something to do. She told us about another boy whom she could barely manage in fourth grade. He was overly aggressive and often angry. One day on the playground, the class discovered a dead squirrel. This boy bent to the squirrel, held it a moment, and looked (untypically for him) very tender. Nancy let him hold it; she talked to him and asked him to lead the burial service.
“He was so different after that day,” she recalled. “He felt so bad for the squirrel. I think he understood life better after that and became a better boy. He just needed to see how things really were in the world around him. He needed to see what that aggression, which he sure had a lot of, really does in the world. My role was not just to teach him reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. My job was to help teach the boy in him how to be a good young man.”
She told us about a seventh-grade girl whose father had died during the summer. The girl, though very bright, was underachieving. In Nancy’s words: “She was just sort of disappearing into herself, not participating anymore, letting her grades fall.” Nancy decided one day to drive the girl home from school herself and try to become close. Nancy ended up becoming a friend of the family and helping the girl not only achieve again but also work through her grief. Nancy was practicing an intuitive, early version of what we now refer to as raising a child’s self-esteem and making sure a girl doesn’t lose her voice. In Nancy’s words, “Sometimes girls are very fragile and need a special kind of attention. Girl attention.”
Coming from someone with so much experience, these stories opened the door to other comments at the training. Some of the parents and teachers who had not wanted to talk openly about male-female difference felt more courage to do so.
“Boys and girls are so different,” said a parent of four. “They just come out of the womb that way. I had two of each, and I started out thinking they’d be the same. They weren’t.”
“I’ve taught twenty years,” said another teacher, “and if I’ve learned anything it’s that while boys and girls are the same in lots of ways, they are definitely different. Every year I change the way I teach just to accommodate that one fact.”
Parents and teachers like these have seen the whole gamut of changing theories in education. Teachers like Nancy Lynn are a joy to talk to, for many reasons. They carry the very energy and history of our culture in their hearts, minds, and memories, reminding us that education has always held out to us a vast banquet of possibilities. Nancy inspired the workshop by reminding us that educators do not have to limit their thinking to be effective.
For more than a decade, I have been asking these two questions at teacher trainings and seminars: “When you were being trained to be a teacher, how many of you were offered a class in the actual development of the student’s brain?” and “How many of you were offered a class in the developmental differences between the way a boy’s brain works and a girl’s brain works?”
Generally, about 10-20 percent of the attendees raise their hands in answer to the first question. To the second, only a few hands may go up. As the day of training proceeds, all of us come to agree that for too many decades, biological information about the development of a child’s brain, as well as the crucial differences between male and female brain development, has been fragmentary, incomplete, and sometimes nonexistent. This state of educational training has brought real harm to our educational culture. We are walking into classrooms unprepared to do our jobs. We are putting boys and girls together in classrooms and a system of education that is unprepared to deal with who these children really are.
In this chapter, we present some of the newest and freshest research into the brain, brain similarities, and male-female brain differences. As you read much of this information, you will probably say to yourself, “Oh yeah, I guess I knew that.” But a lot of it will startle you; then, when you sit back and notice the ideas and facts at work among your students, we hope you will say, “Aha, so that’s why such-and-such happens” or “OK, so now I see how to make my classroom even better.”

The Wide Spectrum of Gender in the Brain

As you master this material, we hope you will check the research by keeping your own journal of observations. For a month or so, mark down “gender experiences” you see in your classroom, or home, or wherever it is that you are a teacher of children (“Today Jimmy did such-and-such” or “Today Heather said something that . . .”). A detailed journal generally corroborates most of the brain-based research that we lay out in this chapter, and it leads to new insights into how you can interact with these male and female brains.
At the same time, you will discover many exceptions to what we say. Brain development is best understood as a spectrum of development rather than two poles, female and male. Many of the children you have contact with lean toward the female on their brain development spectrum, many others toward the male. Mainly, your girls lean toward the female and boys toward the male, but you may also notice a number of “bridge brains.” These are boys and girls who possess nearly equal qualities of both the male and female brains. They are, in a sense, the bridge between male and female cultures because their brains are the most “bi-gender.”
The material of this chapter should not be used to stereotype or limit males and females, because each child is an individual. Rather, it should be used to add wisdom to the individuality already assumed in every human. Of course, difference is not evidence of gender superiority or inferiority in general. There are some things that boys tend to be better at than girls, and vice versa. There is a skill superiority already built into general male and female brain development. But this in no way means there is an inherent male or female superiority in moral or social terms. Unfortunately, when it was discovered a hundred years ago that the male brain was 10 percent larger physically than the female, some neuroscientists of that time proclaimed, “You see, this corroborates what we’ve said all along: men are smarter than women.” Interpretations like this can make all of us a little afraid of saying that boys and girls learn differently because their brains are different.
Nonetheless, we certainly hope this chapter helps you become fearless in pursuit of the wisdom inherent in brain difference. Camilla Benbow, a researcher at the University of Iowa, has studied more than a million schoolchildren to determine the reliability of the early findings on the reality of brain differences. She discovered marked, sex-different approaches and attitudes to learning and living between boys and girls for which she had initially sought explanation in one or more overriding cultural events or social experiences. Benbow, and most researchers like her, started doing their research twenty years ago, when searching for sociological reasons for male-female difference was the accepted practice. Benbow ended up with this result: “After fifteen years of looking for an environmental explanation and getting zero results, I gave up.” The differences, she discovered, were in the brain, with culture playing an important part but not the defining role that many people have wished to believe.
Other researchers, notably Laurie Allen at UCLA, have discovered actual structural differences in the brain. Still others, such as Ruben Gur at the University of Pennsylvania, have discovered functional differences using positronic emission tomography (PET) scans. Their research has been corroborated all over the world. The best primary text we know of for getting a whole picture (on a worldwide scale) of brain-based gender differences is Brain Sex, by Anne Moir and David Jessel.
In the end, what all of us in this field have found is that once brain difference becomes real for those who teach children, a number of doors to better education open. Let’s open some of them now and walk through. True equality of education occurs, we will discover, as each teacher embraces the fact that we need to know more about how the brain in general learns, and how boys’ and girls’ brains learn differently.

How the Brain Works

How does the brain actually work? Our answer to this question is far more extensive than it was two decades ago, but it is a long way from complete. One might just as well attempt to fully describe how the planet works, how our solar system works, or how the universe works, for the brain is no less complex, fascinating, and mysterious than these. In describing and graphically illustrating the workings of the brain, we must leave out more than we put in. For the purposes of this book, we strive to include all the areas where there is, ultimately, some difference between male and female brains.
Science has estimated that the adult brain has around one hundred billion neurons and an even larger number of glial cells. An adult human brain is between 2.25 and 3.5 pounds of dense matter in three major layers: the cerebral cortex at the top; the limbic system in the middle; and the brain stem at the bottom, connecting with the spinal cord. Historically, for more than two million years, the brain has grown from the bottom up, the upper limbic system and the four lobes of the cerebral cortex developing later than the lower limbic and the brain stem.
In general, the three layers of the brain are known for distinct functions (though all functioning areas of the brain constantly interact). The brain stem is where fight-or-flight responses are harbored. When we’re in an immediate crisis, we often feel our instincts take over. This happens in the brain stem, the most primitive part of our brain and essential for our survival.
Our limbic system is generally where emotion is processed. A sensory stimulant comes into the brain through our eyes, ears, skin, or other organs, and we experience an emotive response to it; the immediate sensual and emotive response resides, to a great extent, in the limbic system in the middle of the brain. Although some aggressive responses are brain-stem responses, others come from the limbic system as well—specifically from the amygdala, which lies at the bottom of the limbic system, just above the brain stem.
The four lobes at the top of the brain are generally where thinking occurs. In each lobe, different sensory stimulants are processed. Certain cortices in the top of the brain (for instance, the prefrontal cortex) handle the majority of our moral and other kinds of decision making. The brain is divided into the left and the right hemispheres. The left is primarily associated with verbal skills—speaking, reading, and writing—and the right is primarily associated with spatial skills, such as measuring, perceiving direction, and working with blocks or other objects.
When we are teaching a child the higher-order content of a novel, or how to do math, we are generally speaking to the top of the brain, though emotional responses often mix in, especially if the student has an emotional reaction to the content of a book or lesson. In this way, the neocortex and the limbic system work together.
An example of an emotional reaction is “I feel sympathy for Hester Prynne” or, less obviously, “I can’t do this, it’s too hard.” Either way, the emotive response in the limbic system can slow down or shut off most thinking in the top of the brain, depending on how tough the emotional moment is. In neurological terms, a child who thinks she can’t do it might fulfill her own thinking: during the crisis of self-esteem her blood flow remains heavily in the middle of the brain, not moving up to the thinking centers. When we tell a child to “think before you act,” we are actually saying, “Redirect your blood flow from the limbic system, and even from the brain stem, to the top of the brain before you act.”
We may never understand all of the machinations, functions, and potentials of our brain. It is not our purpose here to try. Our goal should be to look at what we do know about how the brain learns and what we are discovering about the important differences in how male and female brains operate. By taking these first, tentative steps toward understanding, we can help our children become comfortably and fully themselves—accepting their differences, celebrating their natural strengths, and aiding them in compensating for their natural weaknesses. Table 1.1 shows the similarities and differences between the male and female brain.

How Boys’ and Girls’ Minds Are Different

There are a number of categories of male-female difference to consider. We present some of these expositionally, while including two tables by which to make an even deeper comparison. There are many differences we could present, but we have preselected those that seem most essential to learning strategies. You’ll find that each category contains mainly highlights of what appears in the tables.

Developmental and Structural Differences

In most cases, and in most aspects of developmental chronology, girls’ brains mature earlier than boys’ brains. An example is in the myelination of the brain. One of the last steps in the brain’s growth to adulthood occurs as the nerves that spiral around the shaft of other nerves of the brain, like vines around a tree, are coated.
This coating is myelin, which allows electrical impulses to travel down a nerve quickly and efficiently. A ten-year-old is generally a more developed human than a toddler, and an adult more so than a ten-year-old, in large part because of myelination. Myelination continues in the brain until physical maturity is reached: in females the brain tends to mature in the early twenties, in males this occurs later, closer to age thirty.
This is a maturity difference at the tail end of childhood, but the differing maturity occurs at the beginning as well. Girls, for instance, can acquire their complex verbal skills as much as a year earlier than boys. Thus, quite often a preschool girl reads faster and with a larger vocabulary than a peer boy does, and she speaks with better grammar. In general, female brains develop more quickly than male brains. Brain development in infants is often most pronounced in the right hemisphere and gradually moves to the left. In females, the movement to the left starts earlier than in males.
Perhaps the most familiar structural difference in the brain is the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the right and left hemispheres. In females it tends to be larger (meaning generally having more neural connections) than in males, giving girls more cross-talk between the hemispheres of the brain. There is more (and quicker) development in females than males in the prefrontal lobes, where affect regulation finds its executive decision making, and the occipital lobes, where sensory processing often occurs.
Girls tend to absorb more sensory data than boys. On average, they hear better, smell better, and take in more information through fingertips and skin. Females tend to be better than males at controlling impulsive behavior. They often are able to self-monitor high-risk and immoral conduct better than boys (on average)—especially if the boys and the girls are equally untrained in ethics or impulse control. In other words, girls are by nature less likely to take moral risks than boys. Boys are more likely to physically show natural aggression.
Girls’ verbal abilities tend to develop earlier so they rely more heavily on verbal communication; boys often rely heavily on nonverbal communication, and are less able to verbalize feelings and responses as quickly as girls. This has immense ramifications in our present culture, which relies so heavily on talk, conversation, words. We are all far better trained at listening to words than at watching silent cues, which often makes communication with a male difficult.
Males tend to have more development in certain areas of the right hemisphere, which provides them with better spatial abilities such as measuring, mechanical design, and geography and map reading. Lynn S. Liben, of Pennsylvania State University, recently reviewed data from the 1999 National Geography Bee, a geography-based contest hosted by Alex Trebek that has attracted five million participants. Of those millions, forty-five times more boys than girls are likely to be finalists.
Like many researchers, Liben and the coauthors of her study concluded that although to some extent the boy-girl gap can be accounted for by cultural factors, the lion’s share of the gap stems from better cognitive spatials in the male brain. “There really are some differences biologically,” she said; “I feel I have to say this as a woman.”

Chemical Differences

Males and females have a differing amount of most of the brain chemicals. Serotonin, often called the “feel good” chemical, is a neurotransmitter. Less effective processing of serotonin may make males more impulsive in general, as well as more fidgety. Differences in vasopressin and oxytocin are also substantial. For instance, the crying of a child may stimulate secretion of oxytocin in the female brain to a greater degree than in the male brain. Oxytocin is just one of the brain chemicals that, being more constantly stimulated in females, make the female capable of quick and immediate empathic responses to others’ pain and needs.

Hormonal Differences

Although males and females both possess all the human hormones, degree of dominance differs. Females are dominated by estrogen and progesterone, males by testosterone. These hormones are contrasting in their effects. Progesterone, for instance, is a female growth hormone and also a bonding hormone. Testosterone is the male growth hormone, and also the sex-drive and aggression hormone.
Whereas a girl may be likely to bond first and ask questions later, a boy might be aggressive first and ask questions later. A girl is likely to try to manage social bonds in a group situation through egalitarian alliances, but a boy tends to manage social energy by striving for dominance or pecking order.
Human behavior is far more driven by hormones than we have wanted to admit. Despite the plethora of research on testosterone and premenstrual syndrome, we tend to avoid acknowledging the importance of hormonal differences. Yet male and female mood are very dependent on the interplay of hormones and the brain. Beginning in prepuberty, generally around ten years old, males often receive as many as seven to ten “spikes” or “surges” of testosterone every day. During the spiking, hormonal flow can make their moods vacillate between aggressive and withdrawn.
Females’ estrogen and progesterone levels rise and fall with their hormonal cycle, making their moods swing as well. These hormones affect in-class emotive functioning, of course, because of mood, but they also influence learning performance. For instance, when female estrogen is high, girls may score higher on both standardized and in-class tests than when it is low. When male testosterone is high, the boy may perform better on spatial exams, like math tests, but worse on verbal tests.
There is great variety among boys and girls in their own hormonal levels. Some boys are high-testosterone: very aggressive, socially ambitious, striving for dominance, heavy in muscle mass, or a combination of these conditions. Some boys are low-testosterone, more sensitive, softer in appearance and manner. By adulthood, males can end up with twenty times more testosterone than females, but possibly also only five or six times as much. Female hormone levels vary, of course, with the time of the month and other circumstances (such as hearing a child cry, seeing another person suffer, becoming pregnant, or even competing). When both males and females compete, their testosterone levels go up (females included), but males obviously have a much higher testosterone baseline; this makes males on average more aggressively competitive than females.

Functional Differences

How the brain uses its cell and blood activity differs considerably in males and females. Boys tend to use the right hemisphere more; girls tend to use the left. Boys tend to process emotive information from the limbic system to the brain stem (where fight-or-flight responses are stored); girls tend to process more of it in the upper brain, where complex thought occurs. Ruben Gur, at the University of Pennsylvania, has used PET scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other brain imaging techniques to show that the resting female brain is as active as the activated male brain. In his words, “There is more going on in a resting female brain than in a resting male brain.” There are benefits to both ways of processing information. However, the female brain, never truly at rest, may have a learning advantage by being more consistently engaged, even when bored.