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I was recently looking through job listings in my local area (US high school, ages 14-18) and I found two boarding schools with vacancies, one was male-only and the other was female-only. This got me thinking:

QUESTION: is there any research or evidence that suggests different approaches to teaching math / different assignments are better suited for different genders?

Should the teaching style of the math teachers at these two schools be very different? For example, would an all male classroom do better with direct instruction? Open problem solving? Socratic Method? What about an all female class, would they do better with Socratic Method? End of unit projects vs end of unit tests?

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  • $\begingroup$ I thought there were comments here. $\endgroup$ Jun 5 at 6:11
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    $\begingroup$ For all I can tell, there was not a single comment on this post before your first comment @JamesS.Cook Moreover at the time you wrote that comment there was not a single deleted comment in this thread. It's rather unclear what you meant. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Jun 5 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ By now there are a couple deleted comments on the answer that seemed intentionally confrontational, which is why they were removed. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Jun 5 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook there were none. I could see them if there were any. $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Jun 6 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ As a general principle, the whole concept of "variant learning styles" is entirely a (long-running and perniciously popular) myth. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 21:06
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I can't cite research to back me up on this, and you will want answers that reference research. But.

Most of the differences between groups of boys and groups of girls come from how they've been socialized. Our culture pushes boys one way and girls another. Because of this (and not any inherent differences) I imagine that the girls will enjoy cooperation more, and the boys will enjoy competition more. (I personally enjoy competition, but most women in math are outliers to some extent.)

Research does show that timed tests harm female students more than male students. But I don't know how that information might affect best teaching practices.

The most important effect of classes for girls only is that the girls have more space to shine and get more attention from their teachers. A good book on how much more attention the boys get in mixed-gender classrooms is Failing at Fairness (updated as Still Failing at Fairness), by Myra and David Sadker. (Myra died right after the first edition came out.) This does not suggest a need for different practices in single gender classrooms.

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    $\begingroup$ The key words you would want in a Google Scholar search for the timed test research is "tend and befriend". The research encourages me to eliminate stress responses wherever they might occur in my class. It's worth doing in co-ed classes as well, of course. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ Wow, who would have guessed those as search criteria?! $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Jun 3 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ The first two paragraphs could be deleted without changing the answer. They could, in fact, be completely inverted without changing the rest of the answer (ie: I have nothing to cite, but I'm going to point to genetics as causal for gender differences between girls and boys). This just plants a flag in a controversial camp for the purposes of showing ideological support. If you have nothing to cite, then it's just an opinion and it means nothing. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Jun 6 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ Are there innate differences between men's and women's behavior? $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Jun 6 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ Re competition and cooperation: Before a credit hour was taken away from calc I, I used to have a day where the students worked on some integrals and put solutions up on the board (+1 pt out of a 1000 to the first correct solution). I learned a lot about the students, and it was highly varied. Once a group of women worked together. A couple solved an integral. One said, “Go put it up.” The other said, “No, you do it. I’ve already got a point.” Well, it’s amazing how such a dynamic can be leveraged to create community, simply because people want to be good (too long to explain in a comment) $\endgroup$
    – Raciquel
    Jun 6 at 21:35
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I think the cognitive science is quite clear on this: Teachers should focus on learner similarities, not differences.

Teaching to What Students Have in Common

The corollary to the author's first "Must Have" (factual knowledge) is that there is one area in which differences matter tremendously: Prior Knowledge. That should determine the majority of the differentiation in your classroom.

My rough guess is:

  1. 90% of students would be better off if their teachers took prior knowledge and universal properties of cognitive architecture more seriously and largely ignored other differences.

  2. The 10% of students who need other types of differentiation are obvious exceptions, such as students with medical issues, social anxiety, disability, troubled home environments, poverty, culture shock, enormous age differences, enormous time demands such as a job or child, etc. and other non-cognitive and non-academic factors.

  3. ~0% of students need differentiation according to "learning styles" (they don't exist), gender differences, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ I haven't read the full article yet, I jumped down to the factual knowledge part and found this quote. The author says a teacher demonstrating if a mixture is miscible or not might show water and salt water mixing together but water and oil not mixing together (staying in layers). Then they say "if the students don't know that liquids of different densities should separate, they will not be especially surprised or intrigued by the demonstration." But think the opposite would be true. If I didn't have any prior knowledge, I would be very intrigued as to why the layers stay separate. $\endgroup$
    – ruferd
    Jun 9 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that his example may not have been ideal. His greater point, though, is, as far as I know, not contested in the world of cognitive psychology. He writes more about learner differences and similarities in his book "Why Don't Students Like School?" if you want to check it out. You could also check out LearningScientists.org to get a sense of how much they emphasize gender. (Hint: Not a lot.) $\endgroup$ Jun 10 at 6:28
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High school boys and girls obviously tend to differ from each other in their behavior, which is probably mostly due to social factors (as opposed to hormones). But if you base your teaching methods on these differences, then you risk perpetuating the same sexism in society that created those differences. It would be different if we knew there were certain inherent differences in how boys and girls learn math.

The tools of science are in principle capable of detecting certain types of inherent sex-linked differences. For example, if a certain trait is caused solely by a gene on the Y chromosome, then that will cause certain well-defined statistical correlations between related people of various sexes and types of genetic relatedness. For example, this is how we know that the most common type of color blindness is due to a gene on the Y chromosome. There can also be inherent sex-linked differences in things like lateralization of the two hemispheres of the brain, which are I believe caused by hormones, but there is no scientific magic bullet for showing that these directly cause intellectual differences.

In reality, when you try to measure whether there are inherent intellectual differences between groups, you tend to get swamped by random and systematic errors. On any test, males and females will have overlapping bell curves, and although there will be some difference $\Delta\mu$ between the means, that difference will almost always be very small compared to the width $\sigma$ of each bell curve. The one case I've heard of where it's not true that $\Delta\mu \ll \sigma$ for sex-linked mathematical ability is that males tend to be better at visualizing three-dimensional rotations. I don't know of any case where such a difference is both large and demonstrably inherent.

IMO this makes it pointless to try to teach one group differently than another.

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I find in sports instruction, that girls are more willing to listen to coaching. Boys are more bone-headed and want to do techniques how they think they should, instead of how advised. Also, boys are more tolerant or even responsive to challenges (tough football coach or bootcamp), whereas girls do better with encouragement, positive versus negative feedback.

Overall, I find girls more pleasant to deal with. ;-)

I wouldn't say these are huge differences and they are more based on personality and response to coaching (education) in general, not to math. But you'll notice it. Try teaching a boy to surf and he won't listen to you and will get his ass kicked. A girl will and will be standing first day. (Yeah, they have better flotation, but they also paddle weaker. And it's just night and day how they take coaching.)

Maybe less of an impact in a non-physical task, but I think the personality still comes through. I saw it when TAing chemistry. Girls more willing to ask for, and accept instruction. (Interesting to get the Smith prof's take.)

[Generalizations of course, about populations.]

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