On Boys and Girls Learn Differently! by Michael Gurian

Do male and female students have gender-specific academic needs, advantages and disadvantages? What does the latest research tell us about gender and the brain? How can we use the latest research on gender and the brain to optimise educational opportunities for our young people? Michael Gurian, holder of a BA in journalism and a Master of Fine Arts1, has put together a book "rich in insight" and "innovation" (according to Gurian) to tell us all this and more!

In the tradition of such pop-psych bestsellers as John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, Michael Gurian has put together a book long on categorical assertions, assumptions, and generalisations, and short on research, fact checking, and even basic proofreading. Despite his repeated assertions that he is reporting the existing "brain-based research" (a term to which we will return), Gurian's reference list is decidedly short on primary scientific sources, and correspondingly long on articles about studies published in such resources as USA Today. Gurian's attitude toward scientific research is perhaps best left in Gurian's own words:

The most difficult issue in doing brain and gender research comes up in this simple question, (sic) How do we know the difference is an accurate one? Every reader and every expert has a different standard of certainty. Some of my colleagues (sic) in psychology and education insist that there are no real differences between the minds of males and females, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This said, we know we are presenting a theoretical approach. In the end, you the reader decide whether the research and theory are accurate (!). If your intuition (!!) says yes to the theories, that yes carries the most weight. In the fifteen years I have been helping the culture apply neurobiological research, I have made sure to check a specific researcher's finding with colleagues' findings, multicultural sources, anecdotal confirmations (!), personal observation, and just good common sense (!).

Thus, in Gurian's view, the layperson's intuition trumps scientific data. This seems, I daresay, an odd approach for someone who insists, page after page, that his assertions are the product of "research". It is, however, quite appropriate for this book, considering that his citations to research are highly selective (and tend in the direction of heavily debunked ideological tracts and pop psychology).

At the beginning of the book, Gurian explains that his work is based on what he calls "brain-based research". This he defines to be the "coalescence" of:

1. Neurological and endocrinological (hormonal) effects on learning and behavior.
2. Developmental psychology, especially the effects of natural human development cycles on learning and behavior.
3. Gender-difference research, that is, research comparing both environmental and neurobiological areas of differences (and similarities) between boys and girls.

However, upon reading the book, an entirely different definition of "brain-based research" emerges from his (constant) use of the term. For example, Gurian criticises the work of Carol Gilligan and others, who, as he would have it,

"studied American classrooms from a mainly sociological point of view, one that assumed gender bias against females throughout our patriarchal culture. (...) They found bias because it was there, and then they continued to find bias even where it wasn't."

No word is wasted on the fact that Carol Gilligan is a psychologist, not to mention the author of In A Different Voice, the seminal work on female psychological development, who therefore fits within his second area of "brain-based research" (and is, in fact, a pioneer in it!). This he contrasts with "brain-based research", which would supposedly avoid "creating sociological conclusions that are, at best, incomplete."

This example, amongst many others, serves to elucidate what Gurian really means when he refers to "brain-based research". In addition to the criteria listed above, the observant reader discovers a few additional criteria that are never stated openly:

(1) the "research" must support Gurian's basic premise that male and female brains are fundamentally different in ways that affect behaviour, and
(2) the "research" must not be based on "political assumptions".

Interestingly, extensively debunked political tracts such as The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers and The Myth that Schools Shortchange Girls (Judith Kleinfeld) are exempt from the second requirement. However, any study that suggests that there is discrimination against female students is immediately denigrated as "political research", "political advocacy research", "feminist research" or similar. Most of the time, however, any study tending to refute Gurian's viewpoint is not even cited by name in the text; all the reader hoping for more than one viewpoint can expect is a strawman-style reconstruction of what the study says according to Gurian.

This staggering lack of academic and scientific integrity aside, let us look at Gurian's "science", such as it is. The first difficulty the reader will encounter is the dearth of citations. Even with Gurian's "NOTES", it is not particularly easy to determine where Gurian derives the basis for a given assertion. There are no footnotes, or even endnotes, making it difficult to scrutinise his assertions without going through every single work he cites for every single claim.

In short, Gurian takes common cultural stereotypes and generalisations and attempts to biologise them, whether or not there is any rational basis for doing so. Gurian never attempts to reconcile his assertions with contrary scientific data. For Gurian, who, it bears repeating, is neither a brain researcher, nor a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, nor a physician, nor any other kind of scientist, the way to deal with contrary data is to attack it as ideological and unscientific, without ever engaging its substance. Nowhere do we hear about the studies that indicate that children are treated differently based on their gender from birth. Nor do we have occasion to wonder if enforcement of gender conformity might have any bearing on gendered behaviour. Absent are the studies that indicate that gender nonconformity is often harshly dealt with by peers and authority figures alike. Apart from the "exceptions" to the general stereotypes that are never elaborated on and seem to have been added as an afterthought, there is no reason to think that anyone ever deviates from the catalogue of gendered behaviours and tendencies that Gurian reiterates ad nauseam.

Not only is there hardly a whiff of gender-nonconforming behaviour in Gurian's work (with one interesting exception, to which I will return presently), key concepts such as gender identity are never even mentioned. Even differences in sexual orientation, at least, were mentioned once, albeit towards the back of the book with no elaboration or real discussion.

The one indication of gender-nonconformity in Gurian's book that goes beyond an afterthought is the following example:

Little girls stuff dolls in their T-shirts and deliver babies. Others carry on a pretend wedding. One teacher told us about a group of four-year-old boys who decided to stuff their shirts in pregnancy along with the girls and were told, quite logically, by the girls "You're a boy, you can't have a baby." One boy was sad enough to cry, according to the teacher, which inspired a spontaneous lesson on how boys and girls are different. (p. 100)

Unfortunately, we don't get to hear anything else about this "spontaneous lesson". However, two things quite relevant to Gurian's general assertions are worth noting. For one thing, this is about all we get on the subject of peers' and authority figures' reactions to gender-nonconforming behaviour. The peers immediately criticise the nonconforming play, and the teacher appears to reinforce the criticism. For another thing, what looks like a "boy" may not always be one. This kind of emotional reaction to being informed that one is a boy (a fact with which the average child is well acquainted) can sometimes indicate a deeper issue concerning a child's gender identity. In a book that purports to be about the "science" and "research" of gender, one might expect a few words to be dedicated to the now well-researched issue of gender identity and its impact on learning and development, but one would be looking in the wrong book.

There is simply not enough space to dedicate to everything wrong with Gurian's trip through the looking glass. There is just too much material. One could spend quite a while examining Gurian's "boys will be boys" approach to bullying and aggression, or write an entire article just examining his assertion that we should not be discouraging aggressive, domineering behaviour in children because domineering children tend to be physically healthier than the children intimidated by them. One could point out that his "innovations" divide up into things that are absurd and things that are not news to anyone who has spent any time studying education or child development in the past half century, or note that his assertion that there is no real discrimination against girls and women that isn't justified by their biology strikes a note we have heard quite often over the past millennium. But the fact is: this book isn't worth it.

Boys and Girls Learn Differently! puts me personally in a somewhat awkward position. I do not deny that there are likely biologically-based differences in male and female behaviour. I do not even deny that Gurian's claims are sometimes not entirely false. What I do dislike is his tendency to strip what science we have of its inherently tentative nature and present it as irrefutable fact. We may one day reach a point where it is possible to say what aspects of gendered behaviour are biological, but we aren't anywhere near there yet. Our understanding of the brain is far too limited to make the kind of breathtaking generalisations Gurian does. To make these claims as if they were facts, and to urge that education be built around them is more than just irresponsible; it is reprehensible. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and this book, in the hands of someone with equal or lesser knowledge than Gurian, is potentially an instrument of great harm.

Special Bonus Footage

Here, for your viewing pleasure, are some of the more adventurous of Gurian's claims:

- Oestrogen lowers "self-assertion" and "self-reliance" in females (p. 21)
-Male brains have greater mass (p. 23) (This is patently false, and extensively debunked. The relevant studies have found that the difference in mass is accounted for by non-neurological connective tissue needed to hold the brain in place in the larger male skull; moreover, the existing data indicate that we can't even be sure whether brain size actually matters in terms of intelligence)
- Progesterone is the "bonding hormone" (p. 28). Actually, oxytocin is generally considered to be the bonding hormone.
- "Scientific technology" has taken gender differences in behaviour "out of the world of speculation and made (them) fact"; this is not the tone one hears in the actual research.
- Females' earlier speech development is allegedly biological (passim). Nowhere does he mention the studies that indicate that parents talk more to infant girls.
- Females are "less able to separate emotion from reason" (p. 36) and "tend to accept emotive intuition as equally valid" (p. 53)
- Pursuit of a comfortable environment is a "universal female trait" (p. 37)
- "Higher-than normal estrogen level produces certain (unspecified!) intellectual disadvantages" (p. 37). It is simply irresponsible to make a blanket statement without immediately specifying both the basis for the statement and the alleged "disadvantages".
- "Amount of female hormone relates directly to success at traditional female tasks" (p. 37)
- "Focus on slender appearance for sexual attractiveness (fearing obesity)" is repeatedly implied to be a biological trait. It is rather striking that Gurian, who claims to have studied "thirty cultures", somehow failed to stumble upon the elusive group known as "African American women" (amongst many others), who have been found to have much more positive attitudes toward their own bodies than the middle-class white women who make up the majority of anorexia nervosa sufferers.

1 Gurian's academic credentials are noted here because they are nowhere to be found in his book; he is, however, content to allow people to address him as "Dr. Gurian" and assume that he has a PhD.

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