24 January 2005

Battle of the Sexes

On Friday, I left the safety of my portable building to head inside and have lunch with my science colleagues. A discussion started around the comment made by the president of Harvard last week regarding women being less able to succeed in math and science because of "innate differences."

I'm not sure that President Summers is entirely off base. In fact, none of us were sure.

There is plenty of brain research out there to support the idea that males and females use their brains in different ways. Most recently was this article that included the following:

"Researchers say it is all down to differences in the reliance of the sexes on either grey matter or white matter in their brains to solve problems. They found that in intelligence tests men use 6.5 times as much grey matter as women, but women use nine times as much white matter. Grey matter is brain tissue crucial to processing information and plays a vital role in aiding skills such as mathematics, map-reading and intellectual thought. White matter connects the brain's processing centres and is central to emotional thinking, use of language and the ability to do more than one thing at once. "

But there are plenty of other studies and data sources that all point to men and women just being wired differently. For most of us, this news is greeted by a resounding "Duh."

How does this translate to the realm of the classroom? American schools have been so concerned with "equality" for girls over the last 30 years, that they have more or less forgotten that boys should continue to have the same opportunities. And it is starting to show. Who performs best on standardized testing? Who is most often at the top of a graduating class? Who is accepted to and completes college in higher numbers? It's the sistahs, doin' it for themselves.

I suppose it's a bit of "the pot calling the kettle black." Here I am---a woman of science, even with my inferior grey matter. I'm here because other women paved the way. But I look at the boys in my classes and I really have to think about the way I teach them. Cooperative learning? Not really a guy kinda thing. Reflective thinking...journaling? Making a puppet show about a cell organelle? Girl-friendly sorts of activities. And yet, these are the kinds of things which are promoted to teachers to use in the classroom.

How will I inspire my young men? How will I encourage them to achieve?

I'm sure that I will continue to ponder those questions. My guess is that Harvard's president will be pondering gender education, too.

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