Fundamental differences in brain structure v. different social expectations? The NY Times reports that single-sex education is on the rise. One group (mostly male, go figure) claims that boys and girls have fundamentally different brains, which necessitates different learning environments. Another group claims that segregating students results in different social expectations. Dr. Leonard Sax, who believes that differences between the sexes are hard-wired into the brain, based his conclusions on such things as different tolerances for scent.
Let’s be real, people: ability to smell mold is not a driving factor in how well someone understands dynamic modeling. If this were really an issue about teaching people based on their individual brain structure – with no regards to social or gender factors – we would test every kid and sort them into classrooms based on their own, personal learning styles, not group membership. This blogger, for one, would be horrifically bored in a classroom with singing and talks about “The Sisterhood” – give her something to build, please! To put it another way:
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.”
Bingo. A lot of the so-called “sex differences” are slight distinctions between the medians in distributions. Below is a picture of two bell curves, one offset from the other by a standard deviation:
Although a standard deviation’s difference is a relatively large distinction, statistically speaking, approximately one in six members of each group are closer to the other group than they are to their own. In reality, the differences which drive sex-segregated research are minute:
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.
For those visual learners out there, here are two bell curves, separated by 1/5th of a standard deviation (if anyone can dig up a visual for 1/2 to 1/4th, please post in comments):
Oh, wow – that’s reason enough to sex-segregate classrooms! Let’s make sure the girls talk about their feelings and their friends while boys prepare for world domination.