Friday, February 29, 2008

Boys use hippocampus, girls use cerebral cortex

Sax comes off as a true believer and describes his conversion experience like this: In 2000, one of his patients, a 12-year-old boy, came to his medical office. For several years before then, the boy had been withdrawn, uninspired and on multiple medications, but he had recently made a big turnaround, which his parents credited to having enrolled him in an all-boys school. Upon hearing this, Sax said to the boy’s mother, “With all due respect, I regard single-sex education as an antiquated relic of the Victorian Era.” To which he says she replied, “With all due respect, Dr. Sax, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” After visiting a handful of single-sex schools, Sax threw himself into studying neurological differences between males and females, eventually focusing on how to protect boys from a syndrome he calls “failure to launch,” which Sax often characterizes as caring more about getting a Kilimanjaro in Halo 3 than performing well in high school or taking a girl on a date. Among his early proposals was that boys should start kindergarten at age 6, a year later than girls, in order to ease the “sense of scholastic incompetence” that so many boys feel early on because they tend to develop later. Several friends quickly convinced Sax that American families would never go for this. So Sax started thinking it might be better for boys and girls to be in different classrooms.

Sax’s official foray into single-sex public-school advocacy started in early 2002, when, he says, he applied for “a 501(c)(3) with the pretentious and improbable name of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.” In its first few years, N.A.S.S.P.E. didn’t see much action. Then, in 2004, he was invited to give a seminar in Foley. His appearance there led to a workshop in Wilcox County, Ala., and over the next few years, Sax says, “things started to mushroom.” Sax estimates that, at present, 300 of the 360 single-sex public school programs in the country “are coming at this from a neuroscience basis.” Either he or one of N.A.S.S.P.E.’s board members has been in touch with about half the programs.

David Chadwell, one of Sax’s disciples and the coordinator of Single- Gender Initiatives at the South Carolina Department of Education, explained to me the ways that teachers should teach to gender differences. For boys, he said: “You need to get them up and moving. That’s based on the nervous system, that’s based on eyes, that’s based upon volume and the use of volume with the boys.” Chadwell, like Sax, says that differences in eyesight, hearing and the nervous system all should influence how you instruct boys. “You need to engage boys’ energy, use it, rather than trying to say, No, no, no. So instead of having boys raise their hands, you’re going to have boys literally stand up. You’re going to do physical representation of number lines. Relay races. Ball tosses during discussion.” For the girls, Chadwell prescribes a focus on “the connections girls have (a) with the content, (b) with each other and (c) with the teacher. If you try to stop girls from talking to one another, that’s not successful. So you do a lot of meeting in circles, where every girl can share something from her own life that relates to the content in class.”

While Sax rejects the notion that he is a gender essentialist — according to Sax’s own definition, “a gender essentialist is a derogatory term that arose in the 1970s to define someone who is an idiot, or a Republican, or both, who does not understand that gender is socially constructed” — he does say that “human nature is gendered to the core” and that “all that happens when you take a toy gun away from your son and give him a doll instead is that you tell him, ‘I don’t like the person that you are and I wish you were more like your sister, Emily.’ ” He opens “Why Gender Matters” with two cautionary tales: one about a boy who starts kindergarten at age 5, is given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. and depression and ends up on a three-drug cocktail of Adderall, Wellbutrin and clonidine; the other about a girl who transforms “from chubby wallflower to outgoing socialite” in middle school, seems to have it all — friends, academic success — and then shocks her parents by overdosing on Vicodin and Xanax. The two anecdotes are capsule versions of the boys’ and girls’ crises, and depending on one’s point of view, Sax effectively either addresses or exploits these parental concerns. After presenting the Adderall-doped grammar-school boy and the suicidal middle-school girl, Sax offers a possible cause of these sad stories. “The neglect of gender in education and child-rearing has done real harm.” These tragedies “might have been averted if the parents had known enough about gender differences to recognize what was really happening in their child’s life.”

Among the differences Sax notes between boys and girls: Baby boys prefer to stare at mobiles; baby girls at faces. Boys solve maze puzzles using the hippocampus; girls use the cerebral cortex. Boys covet risk; girls shy away. Boys perform better under moderate stress; girls perform worse. Many academics and progressives tend to find Sax’s views stereotyped and infuriating, yet Sax does not seem to mind. Sax told me that in 2005, he delivered a lecture at a conference at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. When the next speaker, Michael Younger, of Cambridge University, took the lectern, Sax says Younger threw down his speech and said, “I’m going to depart from my prepared remarks because I’m so annoyed by the sexist rubbish I just heard from Dr. Sax. Dr. Sax is trying to tell us that boys draw action and girls draw stasis. He might as well have said: ‘Boys are active, girls are passive. Boys should go out and have jobs, girls should stay home and have babies.’ ” While Sax, a gadfly, enjoys telling this story, Younger calls it “a fiction,” though he does concede “that certain aspects of Sax’s work suggest an essentialism about boys and girls which is not borne out by reality as exposed in our own research.”

A deluge of data has emerged in recent years detailing how boys and girls have different developmental trajectories and different brains. Sax has made a role for himself popularizing this work, though it’s not yet clear what the research means or whether there are implications for single-sex education. For instance, among neuroscientists, motor skills are often used as proxies for assessing cognitive skills and social and emotional control in younger children. As Martha Denckla, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland, explained to me: “Looking at normal motor development in boys and girls — the ability to balance, to hop, to use your feet, to use your fingers and your hands — as a group, 5-year-old girls look almost completely the same as 6-year-old boys. The same is also true for anything having to do with speed of output: for example, how quickly you answer a question. Maybe you know the answer, but you just can’t prepare your mouth to form the words.” The gender gap in motor development shrinks through grammar and middle schools, Denckla says, disappearing once everyone has gone through puberty, around age 15. Yet Denckla doesn’t see any need for single-sex public education; she thinks mixed-grade K-1, 1-2 and 2-3 classrooms are a better way to deal with the developmental differences among school-age kids.

Scans of boys’ and girls’ brains over time also show they develop differently. Analyzing data from the largest pediatric neuro-imaging study to date — 829 scans from 387 subjects ages 3 to 27 — researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health found that total cerebral volume peaks at 10.5 years in girls, four years earlier than in boys. Cortical and subcortical gray-matter trajectories peak one to two years earlier in girls as well. This may sound very significant, but researchers claim it means nothing for educators, or at least nothing yet. “Differences in brain size between males and females should not be interpreted as implying any sort of functional advantage or disadvantage,” the N.I.M.H. paper concludes. Not one to be deterred, Sax invited Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch at N.I.M.H., to give the keynote address at his N.A.S.S.P.E. conference in 2007. Giedd spoke for 90 minutes, but made no comments on schooling at all.

One reason for this, Giedd says, is that when it comes to education, gender is a pretty crude tool for sorting minds. Giedd puts the research on brain differences in perspective by using the analogy of height. “On both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation. Height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.” Giedd suggests a thought experiment: Imagine trying to assign a population of students to the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms based solely on height. As boys tend to be taller than girls, one would assign the tallest 50 percent of the students to the boys’ locker room and the shortest 50 percent of the students to the girls’ locker room. What would happen? While you’d end up with a better-than-random sort, the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place. Giedd suggests the same is true when educators use gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids. Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well. Says Giedd, “There are just too many exceptions to the rule.”

Despite a lack of empirical evidence, a cottage industry has emerged working the “boys and girls are essentially different, so we should educate them differently” angle. Several advocates like Sax have been quite successful commercially, including Michael Gurian, a family therapist, who published the best-selling “The Wonder of Boys” in 1996, a work he has since followed up with 15 more, including “Boys and Girls Learn Differently!” Through the Gurian Institute, he provides trainings to teachers, “showing the PET scans, showing the Spect scans” (a Spect scan is a nuclear imaging test that shows how blood flows through tissue), “teaching how the male and female brain are different,” Gurian told me. Like Sax, Gurian speaks authoritatively, yet both have been criticized for cherry-picking studies to serve their views. For instance, Sax initially built his argument that girls hear better than boys on two papers published in 1959 and 1963 by a psychologist named John Corso. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent a fair amount of energy examining the original research behind Sax’s claims. In Corso’s 1959 study, for example, Corso didn’t look at children; he looked at adults. And he found only between one-quarter and one-half of a standard deviation in male and female hearing thresholds. What this means, Liberman says, is that if you choose a man and a woman at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the woman’s hearing will be more sensitive and about 4 in 10 that the man’s hearing will be more sensitive. Sax uses several other hearing studies to make his case that a teacher who is audible to boys will sound too loud to girls. But Liberman says that if you really look at this research, it shows that girls’ and boys’ hearing is much more similar than different. What’s more, the sample sizes in those studies are far too small to make meaningful conclusions about gender differences in the classroom. The “disproportion between the reported facts and Sax’s interpretation is spectacular,” Liberman wrote on his blog, Language Log. “Dr. Sax isn’t summarizing scientific research; he’s making a political argument,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “The political conclusion comes first, and the scientific evidence — often unrepresentative or misrepresented — is selected to support it.”

One of Sax’s core arguments is that trying to teach a 5-year-old boy to read is as developmentally fraught as trying to teach a 3 1/2-year-old girl and that such an exercise often leads to a kid hating school. This argument resonates with many teachers and parents, who long for the days when kindergarten meant learning how to stand in line for recess, not needing to complete phonics homework. Yet public schools are beholden to state standards, and those standards require kindergartners to learn to read. As a result, even leaders of single-sex public schools, like Jabali Sawicki, the principal of the all-boys Excellence Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, are using some of what Sax has to offer while quietly refuting other claims.

-Teaching to the Testosterone

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