Nicola Walsh recommends different approaches to teaching boys and girls

Girls generally outperform boys at school – and they do much better from an early age. They arrive in school ready to learn, sit still and listen. On the other hand, boys want to be active – and they take longer to settle into academic work. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores reveals that girls in 65 countries do better in reading at the age of 15 than boys.

So what causes this difference between the sexes?

Even at birth, the brain of a male is distinctly different to that of a female. Although the brains of a foetus are identical in the first 12 weeks, at three months the male foetus receives a high dose of androgens – a chemical that causes significant changes in the brain. Again at puberty, hormones are released that create different levels of chemicals so that male and female brains develop differently.

Clearly, there’s a continuum and the levels of difference vary: some male brains may be very female and conversely, some female brains may be more masculine than others.

Our brains comprise two hemispheres. The left side processes analytical, logical and linguistic concepts while the right side handles global nonverbal concepts. Generally, men have a tendency to use only one hemisphere of their brain at any one time and as a result, they’re focussed and less aware of distractions.

Women find it easier to multitask because their brains have a larger corpus callosum – a bridge of nerve fibres that link the left and right hemispheres. Female brains therefore, are more integrated and both hemispheres are active simultaneously.

Most males have a larger area of the brain devoted to visual and spatial processing, which is why they enjoy music, solve 3D puzzles, construct with materials, play football and watch cartoons.

A female brain has a larger left side – the area used for linguistic processing. As a result, most girls learn to talk, read and write earlier than boys. And they make rapid progress in building social relationships and learning from one another.

It is well-known that males have a higher level of testosterone, which is the hormone that causes humans to be action orientated, competitive and aggressive. Therefore, boys need to actively explore the space around them and will work hard to be the first in any competition.

On the other hand, girls with lower levels of testosterone are more cooperative, less concerned with winning and more involved in processes. They are less likely to explore but willing to use their energy to create a safe home environment that’s ready to raise their offspring.

Parents of boys will tell you how much harder they are to discipline than girls. That is because males have lower levels of serotonin – a chemical used to engage the logical and rational parts of the brain. As a result, boys find it harder to control their behaviour without clear boundaries and it appears that they’re more frequently expelled from school than girls.

Higher levels of serotonin in female brains enable girls to be rational and make the right decisions without being influenced by others. Ironically, parents are often stricter with girls, which is why they exhibit higher levels of self-control possibly because disciplining them is easier.

Dopamine alerts the brain to important information and releases endorphins, which produce pleasurable states and facilitates intense concentration as seen in sport. Since boys have less dopamine than girls, encouraging them to play rugby or exercise before class will help them focus.

So these differences in our brains account for the different types of behaviour. Girls are generally less aggressive, peacemaking, literate and cooperative. Boys on the other hand, are explorative, active and risk takers.

Although some schools have either boys or girls, the former still underperform overall due to the fact that teachers adopt similar methods in all schools. Where teaching and learning place an emphasis on reading and writing – combined with tasks that are cooperative and noncompetitive, sedentary and requiring sustained attention – girls do better.

If teachers learn to recognise the biological differences in the brains of boys and girls, they may be able to consider activities that offer some hope for the boys. They need dynamic lessons with short time frames for teacher talk followed by tasks that are active, competitive and challenging. Think of action or adventure movies, lights, camera, action and less writing.

There are no differences in terms of what boys and girls can learn – in fact, boys have the capacity to learn more due to their curious nature and competitive drive to seek knowledge. But there are big differences in the methods that are needed to effectively teach the different genders. Currently, our teaching methods favour girls.