Why Boys and Girls Learn Differently

Boy and girl studying

Boys and girls do learn differently. Any parent can watch a boy and girl learning side by side and clearly see that girls approach things analytically while boys attack a problem head on. Whether it's how they tackle a task, or what subjects each is considered "good" at, there are many factors that contribute to how boys and girls learn differently.

Physical Factors

Today's MRIs are far more advanced than they were even 10 years ago, which means that researchers are able to map the brain more effectively using a combination of MRIs and positron emission tomography (PET). In a 2004 report by Gurian and Stevens, they report on research into how boys and girls brains are different and point to the discovery that there are both structural and cognitive differences by gender.

Girls' Brains

According to the Gurian and Stevens report, the corpus callosum of females, which is the bundle of tissues that connect hemispheres of the brain, is about 25 percent larger than that of males by the time children reach adolescence. The result is that there is more "cross-talk" between different areas of the brain. This may explain why women seem to be better at multi-tasking than men.

According to William McBride, PhD, a national educational consultant, women have stronger neural connectors, which leads to:

  • Better listening skills
  • Stronger and more detailed memory storage
  • Ability to decipher different voice tones

In addition, Gurian and Stevens point out that the hippocampus, a storage area for memory in the brain, is larger in girls. This means that girls have an advantage in learning topics like language arts, where memorization of vocabulary and sentence structure is important.

Boys Brains

While it might seem like girls have an advantage with better memory storage and listening skills, males have some distinct advantages in other areas.

  • WebMD indicates that the male brain has 6.5 times more gray matter than the female brain. This means that men are good with spatial skills, such as figuring out directions and math.
  • The article points to research that indicates that the average 12-year-old girl is at a development level in math of an 8-year-old boy.

So, while females may have a distinct advantage in language arts, males have a distinct advantage in math.

Social and Environmental Factors

UNICEF points to the fact that the expectations of teachers and families can have an impact on the cognitive development of children based on gender.


Little Susie is raised like the typical girly girl. She is encouraged to play with dolls, wear dresses and read books. She therefore develops a propensity for language, because she reads and is read to. It is very possible that Susie might be good at math as well, but since there isn't a focus on math, she develops stronger language skills.


Little Johnny is taught to play football at a young age. He watches the game with his dad and they discuss numbers, how many yards the players must run to get a first down and his father also teaches him measurements when Johnny helps him work on the car. Johnny may have a strength for language, but because the focus is on measurement and math that is what he is better at.

Gender Differences in Activities

Even the way that children's days are organized can have an impact on learning. In the same UNICEF article, there is a table that lists how boys and girls in Gambia spend their days. One thing that became apparent is that girls do more work in addition to school than boys of the same age. This develops a work ethic that shows that parents expect more from their daughters and thus girls are often better, more diligent students.

However, these are simply averages. Every family is different and every child is different. While it is good to be aware of tendencies, parents must raise their child in the way they feel is best suited for that child's skills and needs.

Teacher Behavior

In an article in Psychology Today, researchers found that when a teacher focused more on gender stereotypes that learning was impacted. This is often called "stereotype threat" and the biggest impact is seen in standardized tests.

Dr. Rydell, a researcher at Indiana University, found that the perception that "girls can't do math" had a huge impact on girls in the classroom. Basically, the children rose to the expectations the teacher had of them (or didn't have).

In addition, if the teacher was particularly anxious about how girls would do in math or her own math ability, the results were even more pronounced.

Emotional Maturity

It is often thought that girls are more emotionally mature for their age than boys, but is there really a difference in how fast boys and girls mature emotionally?

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have found that different regions of the brain develop in a different sequence and at a different rate in girls and boys. According to the study, girls begin to peak in brain development earlier than boys. However, the exact age varied by different studies. The overall average seems to be that males were around a year to a year and a half later in developing. In addition, women's brains are completely developed and mature earlier than males' brains.

Keep in mind, that this does not indicate that boys have any functional disadvantage. However, where parents and teachers can utilize this information is by understanding that it may be more difficult for a nine-year-old boy to sit still for hours at a time to study than it is for a girl of the same age. Simple techniques, such as breaking study sessions into smaller chunks of time for boys can make a huge difference.

Possible Solutions

The final analysis about whether or not boys and girls learn differently is simply a matter of common sense. Their brains are different, they develop differently, they are treated differently by society, so of course they learn differently.

Some researchers, such as those at Harvard, recommend single sex schools as a possible solution. That solution might not make sense for some families and school districts, but the findings can be implemented by creating all male or all female study groups, breaking children into groups by emotional maturity and development without labeling that child, and encouraging families and teachers to not stereotype children by gender.

Simply being more aware of how the genders learn differently can go a long way toward overcoming any learning patterns that have been developed and compensate for trouble areas in learning.

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