This week, we will examine co-education, which is the formal teaching of males and females in mixed classes.
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a hypothesis was proposed which stated that the only differences between males and females were the obvious physical differences and the physiological differences related to reproduction. This hypothesis was not tested but became popular. Many countries subsequently changed their unisex educational systems and adopted the co-educational model.
There are three opposing positions on the performance of students within the co-educational system, namely:
1. only boys are being disadvantaged by the co-educational system;
2. both boys and girls are being disadvantaged by the co-educational system;
3. neither boys nor girls are being disadvantaged by the co-educational system.
In this week’s column, we shall investigate whether there are intrinsic differences between males and females that are related to learning. If differences are found, then next week, we shall examine the impact of these differences on learning in a co-educational environment.
To investigate differences associated with learning, it is necessary to describe the development of the brain in males and females. Two science subjects were referenced in this investigation, namely neurology, which is the study of the brain and nervous system, and psychology, which is the study of the mind.
After babies have been in their mothers’ wombs for approximately 3 weeks, the cells in the brain start to reproduce at the incredible rate of approximately 250,000 per minute, and the brain and spinal chord assemble themselves perfectly. Any changes in the womb environment can affect the preciseness of this assembly. The womb environment can change as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, malnutrition, and viral infections.
After approximately 9 months in the womb, the baby’s brain contains approximately 100 billion brain cells that can carry electrical messages. These brain cells are called neurons. Before the baby is born, the baby’s brain produces trillions of connections between these neurons.
Just before puberty, around age 10 years, each child would have produced quadrillions of connections between the neurons, many more connections than they will ever need.
As babies grow, they are stimulated by their experiences. Every new and repeated stimulation appears to cause the connections between specific neurons to get stronger.
At the start of puberty, the brain begins to destroy the connections that seem to have been seldom or never used. At the end of puberty, around age 18 years, this destructive process is complete, leaving behind a unique brain pattern. This process occurs with both males and females, however there is a specific event that that makes boys and girls’ brains develop differently.
The brain is composed of two hemispheres, the left and right. Brain cells or neurons are found in both hemispheres, and the connections that we noted earlier connect neurons within each hemisphere and between each hemisphere. Most of the connections between the hemispheres are contained in a part of the brain called the corpus callosum.
When baby boys are in the womb, their bodies and brains are flooded with the male hormone testosterone causing them to develop differently from girls. One effect that this testosterone bath has on boy’s brains is that it destroys many of the connections between the brain’s hemispheres. The connections between the halves of the female’s brain remain intact. At birth, baby boys’ corpus callosum is visibly smaller than baby girls’.
Experimental psychological tests indicate that the right side of the brain is generally stimulated by emotional information, and the left side by rational or analytical information. Very simply then, the right side appears to deal with emotional feelings, while the right appears to deal with thinking and reasoning.
Since the right and left hemispheres of a girl’s brain remain connected, she can feel and think, or feel and speak, or feel and listen at the same time. In boys however, the reduced connections between the left and right brain appears to allow any highly emotional state to suppress the rational thinking process. If the boy is concentrating on rational information, then the emotional process appears to be suppressed.
Next week, we will examine the consequences on learning of these differences in male and female brains.