Seminar teaches teachers to address gender differences

2:12:10 PM CDT - Wednesday, May 03, 2006

By Shannon Littlejohn

"Women connect; men compartmentalize," observed a WSU graduate student waiting for her class to resume after lunch break.

That's one of the ideas affirmed in "Boys & Girls Learn Differently," a College of Education seminar held over two weekends this spring at Wichita State's West Campus.

The seminar title is taken from a book with the same name by Michael Gurian, the guru behind Gurian Institute and a nationally known educator and researcher on gender learning.

Innovations in the book, subtitled "A Guide for Teachers and Parents," were applied in classrooms in six Missouri school districts during a two-year study driven by the Missouri Center for Safe Schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The result was a dramatic increase in those districts' test scores and the creation of a Gurian Institute Training Center in Colorado Springs.

On the WSU seminar's last day, instructor Ray Farag, an education lecturer and WSU alum who is certified by the Gurian Institute to train teachers in recognizing gender learning differences, welcomed a special speaker. She was someone who would help illustrate the concepts, who could compare results in her own classroom experiments with separating the boys from the girls in certain learning units.

Her name? Michelle Farag.

"Now don't think just because she's my daughter that I ever had any influence over her," Ray Farag joked. And in truth, as a first-year teacher at Dodge Elementary Michelle Farag didn't give her father's Gurian ideas much attention. She grouped her female and male fourth-graders together in all of their learning units.

But in her second year, she said, she began experimenting with some of the Gurian concepts on how boys and girls learn.

Dodge, a Title I school with a large low-income and single-parent population, presents some unique challenges, she said.

"I thought the boys might be rowdier grouped together," said Farag, "but they were so excited to be with their friends that they worked really hard to stay there."

It made a difference in the boys' reading abilities almost immediately, she said. Girls, according to research, talk sooner than boys, develop better vocabularies, read better, and have better fine motor skills. Boys, on the other hand, have better auditory memory, are better at three-dimensional reasoning, are more prone to explore, and achieve greater abstract design ability after puberty.

"When the boys and girls were together in groups, I was fighting them constantly," said Farag. "There were always arguments, and the boys didn't want to read with girls around they don't want to be wrong in front of a girl."

So splitting the groups cut down on behavior problems if nothing else. But Farag noticed the hard-wiring differences, too.

"Girls like assigned jobs; boys just want to read and answer," she said. She also loosened up on class rules and allowed the boys to lie on the floor to read, figuring that choice beat the option of yelling at them all day to stay in their seats.

A segregated science unit on wiring a circuit to make a light bulb light up was also illuminating. After brief instructions, the boys went right to work with the materials at hand and were willing to just start over if something went wrong. The girls asked more questions before starting, developed several solutions to the problem, voted on which solution to use, and went to work.

"It took the girls longer to do it, but in a mixed group they would have just let the boys do it," she said.

She applied the separation theories to other learning units, too, but Farag didn't become a true believer in her father's Gurian ways until 90 percent of her kids passed the math standards last year. It was a giant leap from her first year of teaching, enough to get her experimenting this year, too.

The point of understanding the hard-wiring differences in boys' and girls' brains in neurological development, hormonal effects and behavior is to identify ways to allow both boys and girls to thrive in school and stay in school, experts say.

Driven by concern over boys' failure and dropout rates during the past few decades, the movement benefits girls as well as boys, Farag said, as illustrated by her science unit.

Her father chimed in at that point: "If you match your teaching skills to what your students need, they'll be successful."

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