Fashionable Theories and Assumptions

mecp2300bAs in any other profession, there are fashions in education. There new theories, studies and band wagons that people jump on. As generations change, so do pedagogies. I am glad that the Learning Styles ‘theory’ is not bandied about anymore. Thankfully we no longer pigeonhole students as a verbal, visual or kinesthetic learner. No one talks about left vs right brain activities. The next challenge is to debunk the ‘boys vs girls’ paradigm. Yes, they are different, but there are as many differences in a group of girls alone as there are between boys and girls. Below is a summarised article about some of the pseudo science of ‘gender differences’. Time to finally move away from this male/female dichotomy and accept each student as an individual.

The male v female brain: is it all in the mind?

  • The idea that biological differences in male and female brains give rise to different behaviours, aptitudes and learning styles has recently become firmly lodged in the public brain, thanks to reams of research endorsed in scores of popular science books.
  • At Tintern Schools in Ringwood ”parallel” or sex-segregated learning is practised from prep until the start of year 10. It ”allows you to do certain things that appeal more to one gender”, says deputy principal Peter Buckingham, citing ”plenty of evidence that gender is relevant to how people engage with learning and what kind of learning they best engage with”.
  • Yet the extent and effect of ”essential” brain-based differences in learning and abilities between the sexes is hotly contested among scientists. Australia’s most distinguished sociologist, Professor Raewyn Connell, says boxing boys and girls into different learning styles on the basis of supposed biological differences is ”educational nonsense” and ”potentially harmful”. Melbourne Business School academic psychologist Dr Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender calls it ”sexism disguised in neuroscientific finery”, or ”neurosexism”.
  • Fine argues that, given the ”daunting complexity” of brain functioning, which depends on distributed neural networks and a dizzying array of connections, synaptic functions and neurotransmitter systems, it is ”fantastically ambitious” to try to relate subtle brain differences to psychological function.
  • Fine points to ”a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies and poor methodologies” in scientific studies of male-female brain differences. Her criticism of the baby face and mobile study has drawn her into a coruscating public exchange with Baron-Cohen, who accuses her of ”extreme social determinism”. Later this month she is invited to speak to a meeting of the Central American Philosophical Association at an event ominously titled ”Author Meets Critics”.
  • Fine also asserts that the brain is not a ”tidily isolated data processor”, so test results are strongly influenced by social behaviour and attitudes, including stereotypes, and can be easily manipulated. For example, women have been found to do well also at mental rotation when they are told the white lie in advance that their sex is usually the superior performer. Connell, who holds a university chair at the University of Sydney and whose 1995 book Masculinities is among the most cited publications in the field of masculinity studies, says the assertion of fixed social differences resulting from biological differences between sexes in the brain is typical of the rhetorical misuse of scientific ”authority” in the gender debate.
  • Connell notes that the biological mechanism held responsible for supposed gender-based cognitive differences keeps shifting ”according to what is fashionable science”. She argues that what has been historically called sex differences research should really be known as sex similarities research.
  • ”When you look at the whole body of research, the conclusion that leaps out at you is that the actual psychological differences between men as a group and women as a group are few and far between, and very small when they do appear.
  • ”If it is not true that there are big psychological differences, the whole argument that there is a fixed biological basis for the social differences collapses.”
  • So why, if the evidence is so thin, does the idea of a biological basis for difference in male and female abilities persist? No prizes for guessing Fine’s answer: ”It helps to make the status quo seem fair, natural and inevitable. It’s comforting to be able to look around at the considerable sex inequality that still exists and blame different brains, rather than sexism, socialisation and discrimination.” Even if the evidence for biological brain differences between the sexes is inconclusive, stereotypes are both persistent and powerful.
  • In Ringwood, Buckingham says he doesn’t believe boys are better than girls at some subjects or vice versa. All students have individual learning styles which change over time, he says, so it is ”oversimplifying if you think gender separation or gender togetherness is the answer” to unlocking a child’s learning potential.
  • In the 19th century it was feared teaching or secretarial roles might damage women’s reproductive physiology. Until the late 1970s, girls rather than boys were most likely to leave school early. In recent years females have come to dominate the study of law and biology, which were previously male domains. Eventually, research might tell us more about whether and how society’s teaching of gender affects neurological processes, Connell says. Neurology, endocrinology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, ”none of these gives us the master key” to understanding human life and development and the interplay between masculinity and femininity. For that, ”we have to build the sciences together”, she says. But ”this is a slow and difficult process, and not what ideologues want, because they want quick and easy answers”.
  • The idea that biological differences in male and female brains give rise to different behaviours, aptitudes and learning styles has recently become firmly lodged in the public brain, thanks to reams of research endorsed in scores of popular science books.

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