Matthew Lynch: Becoming Aware of Learning and Preference Differences Between Boys and Girls

Matthew Lynch explains that boys and girls learn differently and that gender — both socially and biologically — matters to academics.


Matthew Lynch

While debate continues on whether or not differences in gender are determined more by biology or society, one thing is patently clear: gender awareness is central to working in schools where adolescents are the predominant school population. In the middle school years, parents and teachers often observe a distinct shift in interest levels and in personality among students, as raging hormones take over. Early adolescence is often spent in a cloud, struggling with questions about what it means to be female and what it means to be male.

All too often, this has a profound impact on academic performance. Male and female brain development occurs in different areas of the brain, at dissimilar rates. This leads to disparity and discrepancy in the ability to master the material successfully. Moreover, middle-school aged students appear to be frustrated with learning. The natural curiosity of elementary school children with their inquisitive enthusiasm for school suddenly disappears under distraction due to social and physical development, apathy, and a torrent of hormone-induced emotion.

Gender can be viewed as a social construct with culturally based expectations of appropriate behavior for girls and boys, which differs. There are also physiological differences in girls and boys that impact their learning and behavior. Both are important to understand to ensure the development of girls and boys are supported by school culture and climates.

Developmental Differences: One Brain Running on Two Tracks

Research over the past few decades has demonstrated that the differences between male and female learning are rooted in physiology. Boys’ brains develop differently than girls’ brains. The areas of the brain involved in language and fine motor skills mature earlier in girls than in boys. Many studies show that male and female brains are structurally different. This makes it easy to understand why more boys are identified with behavior issues, attention disorders and learning disabilities.

One solution would involve schools restructuring the environment to arrange more time for movement, and teachers becoming more noise-tolerant. Silent and seated is not a comfortable learning condition for boys, whose brains require more physical movement. Boys may also tend to push the margins of authority more often, and engage each other in pecking order activities in order to establish hierarchical positions among themselves. Many boys panic over their lack of status, and the stress produces cortisol, which triggers the “fight or flight” instincts. Combined with other hormonal issues, this often leads to misbehavior and academic struggles.

Studies indicate that girls tend to be superior in verbal abilities and that this tendency seems to cross cultural and racial boundaries. Similar findings were shown through studies in South Africa—gender discrepancy percentages were roughly the same in blacks, whites and Indians. Yet another study with Japanese and American students in Miami, Florida, produced the same results. As a result, the differences in educational styles are basically innate and biologically based.

Males and females also differ in their preferred modes of receiving information. Females prefer uni-modal learning, whereas males prefer multi-modal learning. According to a learning style preference study conducted by Wehrwein, Lujan, & DiCarlo, 54.2 percent of females preferred a single mode of information presentation, while only 12.5 percent of males preferred this mode of information presentation. Males tended to prefer multiple modes of information presentation, with 58.3 percent being quad-modal. A responsive teacher might be wise to offer verbal as well as written instructions, a chart and a how-to-diagram, in the case of quad-modal learners.

Because males and females rely on different areas of the brain for accurate language transmittal, the genders are processing language information differently, which may explain why teachers’ instructions are sometimes perceived differently. Recognizing the psycho-emotional differences in male and female learning styles and the physiological differences in their rate of cognitive development helps us understand why there is no single solution that will be truly effective for both sexes “equally.”

Socialization styles also influence learning climate preferences among girls and boys. Girls tend to prefer a non-competitive learning environment and cooperative learning situations. Boys enjoy the competition and find the win-lose structure motivational. Girls are more organized, take better notes, keep journals, set goals for themselves and ask teachers for help and clarification. Boys do not take advantage of help as often. Being aware of the aforementioned differences between boys and girls can assist teachers to successfully educate both genders equally.

Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch’s scholarship is intended to make a redoubtable, theoretically and empirically based argument that genuine school reform and the closing of the well-chronicled achievement gap are possible. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching and Learning (Pearson 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming 2-volume set, Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians(Praeger 2012).


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July 7th, 2011

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