For this draft, I chose to focus on the first half of my thesis. The goal of this portion of my paper is to discuss the theories surrounding gender gaps in education, and how these are interrelated. This piece ends with a transition into the topic of motivation, which will be intrinsic to the following parts of my paper. My plan is to next discuss key case studies I found to discuss the importance of motivation and value in learning and to better evaluate the theories I discuss in this draft. Furthermore, I will finish out the paper with my suggestions as to the implications for further teaching strategies and interventions based on the discussion of my research.
Within the last couple of decades it has come to the attention of many, including the media, that there exists a definite male-favored gender gap in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This particular gap has gained much attention as having detrimental effects on our national economy, since more women are now attending college while less of these women are choosing vocations in the STEM fields. This could potentially put the US further behind in technological advancements. In addition, this topic of the female-disadvantaged gender gap has gotten a resounding negative response from those who want women to have equal opportunity. However, the female-dominated gender gap in language arts has gotten less focus. Perhaps this is because society considers the historically male fields of occupation to be of greater importance. On the other hand, an argument could be made that the reason for the lack of attention demonstrates progress because society is more concerned with raising up the historically disadvantaged gender. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there is much evidence supporting the existence of both a male-favored gender gap in STEM and a female-favored gender gap in language arts. What has previously been undecided is whether this is a socially-constructed problem or the result of an inherent preference due to human biological makeup. The answer to this question holds great implications for how curriculum and teaching style could be implemented to best encourage male and female achievement in both areas. These gender gaps are caused by the interaction of interdependent societal and biological influences, though individual personalities cannot be forgotten. This suggests that the best approach to fostering growth for both genders in both areas of interest is to build upon teaching methods to integrate spatial, tactile, and language elements while encouraging greater value placement on both subjects of learning.
There exist various theories suggesting sociological causation of the gender gap present in the STEM fields. Glenda Andrews and her associates in their article, “Sex Differences in Mathematics and Science Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress Assessments,” thoroughly map much of the existing scholarship surrounding this particular gender gap. The authors cite Eagley and Wood’s social-role theory, which hypothesizes that psychological sex differences are the result of gender division among societal roles (Andrews et al., p. 2). This theory implies that societal roles foster “instrumental and achievement-oriented traits in men and expressive and communal-oriented traits in women” (Andrews et al., p. 2). Another key schema supporting societal contributions to this gender gap is that developed by S.L. Bem in 1981 which states that children develop an internal representation of behaviors and interests that fit each sex. In fact, children have demonstrated sex-typing of things as intrinsically masculine or feminine, according to a study done in 2004 by Martin and Ruble (Andrews et al., p. 2). This categorization would include school subjects and fields of occupation. Therefore, it is important to note that both theories reflect societal influence on both genders from a young age, which could give cause to both gender gaps in consideration. Furthermore, the authors of this meta-analysis explain that many experts argue that social and cultural factors that contribute to gender stereotyping offer greater influence than biological elements. Glenda Andrews and her associates, however, maintain that both make considerable contributions to the perceived gender gap in the STEM fields (Andrews et al., p. 3).
Andrews and her colleagues are not alone in their discovery that both biological and social factors are intertwined in the causation of gender-typing. Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently, though he focuses decisively on the biological influences on gender learning, explains possible historical causes of these biological differences. The fields of evolutionary psychology and biology span the realm of both biological and social reasons for various gender differences. These theories are concerned with explaining how the human brain has developed throughout history due to the necessary division of gender-typed roles. The argument is that the human brain has adapted to fit the types of jobs it historically has been expected to perform. For instance, before the agricultural revolution approximately ten thousand years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers. The men were in charge of hunting and protecting during war, usually in large groups. This would give rise to greater spatial skills, aggression, and a need to rely on hierarchical dominance structures. For comparison, women were gatherers who worked in smaller groups and were responsible for childcare. These tasks encouraged greater verbal skills and development of bonding processes for small groups and children (Gurian, p. 38-39). As the world’s population has grown, greater levels of testosterone are being seen in both men and women, as there is more need for competition for resources. It seems various hormonal differences may be triggered by population growth; the brain strives to develop so that individuals and societies can be more ready for competition in aggression and bonding. This means that the amounts of both the androgynous and more gender-different children are increasing (Gurian, p. 39-40). This provides increased challenges for educators in striving to best reach each individual child.
Andrews and her associates in their meta-analysis contribute some arguments from the biological perspective, mostly provided by evidence from sex hormone research and evolutionary psychology. These same concepts are supported in greater detail by Michael Gurian in Boys and Girls Learn Differently. Gurian details how the brain is structurally different in males and females, and how this can have implications for the ways in which both genders learn best. One element that makes a difference in the formation of the brain is the role of sex hormones. Estrogen, found to a greater extent in girls, can often lead to “lower aggression, competitiveness, self-assertion, and self-reliance” (Gurian, p. 21). This could result in females considering themselves less capable in more difficult or competitive areas, including mathematics. On the other hand, testosterone, which occurs in higher concentrations in male brains, leads to aggressiveness and competitiveness (Gurian, p. 24). This would very clearly have the opposite effect on performance and preference in school subjects than estrogen in females. Another interesting hormonal difference between males and females is that the female brain tends to have more functionally present oxytocin, which is a hormone that is associated with social bonding. In other words, this hormone encourages the development and maintenance of relationships, which is evident in females’ tendency to be more motivated by wanting to please parents, peers, and their teachers (Gurian, p. 23). This could contribute to the general population pattern of females performing higher overall than male students.
Structurally, there are many general differences between male and female brains that can contribute to both gender gaps in question. The earlier development of the arcuate fasciculus, a bundle of nerve fibers in the central nervous system, coupled with the more highly active Broca’s area, generally the motor area for speech, in the female brain contributes to tendencies of improved verbal communication skills starting earlier (Gurian, p. 20). In addition, the earlier maturation of and tendency for greater blood flow in the female frontal lobe, which contributes to thought, emotion, and speech, often encourages further improved verbal communication skills and discourages risk taking in girls (Gurian, p. 22). This results in females generally being more predisposed to language arts than males. Several portions of the brain contribute to greater capacity in females for multi-tasking and increased memory storage. One such area is the cerebral cortex, which interprets sensory impulses and promotes more advanced intellectual functions and memory through neuron transmissions. Females tend to have more connections between these neurons as well as greater blood flow in the cerebral cortex, which can contribute to increased processing speed in the female brain to make multi-tasking and transitions within the classroom easier for females (Gurian, p. 21). The hippocampus, whose functions are crucial for learning to have meaning and for retention, is larger with greater number and speed of neuron transmissions in female brains and contributes to increased memory storage in females (Gurian, p. 22). In the male brain, two major differences that set it apart is the larger cerebellum coupled with higher levels of spinal fluid. Because the cerebellum integrates and controls coordination, sensory perception, and motor skills, this makes males more likely to send messages between the brain and body more quickly with less impulse control (Gurian, p. 20). This potentially makes males more active within the classroom, which could initially be judged a behavioral problem. It should be noted that Gurian focuses, unlike many of his colleagues, on the disadvantage male students face, which could explain bias for why there is less explanation of how these biological differences can negatively affect females. Nevertheless, the effects of these hormonal and structural differences can have great implications for improved classroom environment.
In addition, within the brain there are structural differences that result in differences in emotive processing. For example, the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, is typically denser with more neural connections between the two hemispheres in a female brain. This means that females can usually process information more quickly between the two hemispheres, which better connects the emotion processing and language centers (Gurian, p. 21). In addition, PET scans and MRIs have begun to reveal that when females are confronted with emotional information, brain activity quickly moves into the upper four lobes of the brain, where more thought processing occurs (Gurian, p. 32). This means that emotions are more linked directly to learning for females, and often leads to greater verbal processing of emotions. However, this can also result in an emotional overload that hinders learning. Contrarily, male brains tend to respond to emotive stimulus by moving into the lower parts of the brain, making males more withdrawn or aggressive (Gurian, p. 32). This can negatively affect learning since the emotionally stimulated male brain is more likely to be active in the lower regions, where learning is not taking place, and to take more time to process these emotions, which effectively takes time away from learning. However, there is evidence in motivational studies in education that suggest females suffer within emotionally-taxing subjects and activities, including those related to STEM fields. Motivation, including within emotions, offers immense insight into why males and females are performing higher in different areas of school.