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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Becoming Aware of the Learning Differences and Preferences of Boys and Girls

While debate continues on whether or not differences in gender are determined more by biology or society, one thing is patently clear: gender awareness is central to working in schools where adolescents are the predominant school population. In the middle school years, parents and teachers often observe a distinct shift in interest levels and in personality among students, as raging hormones take over.  Early adolescence is often spent in a cloud, struggling with questions about what it means to be female and what it means to be male. 
All too often, this has a profound impact on academic performance. Male and female brain development occurs in different areas of the brain, at dissimilar rates.  This leads to disparity and discrepancy in the ability to master the material successfully. Moreover, middle-school aged students appear to be frustrated with learning.  The natural curiosity of elementary school children with their inquisitive enthusiasm for school suddenly disappears under distraction due to social and physical development, apathy, and a torrent of hormone-induced emotion.
Gender can be viewed as a social construct with culturally based expectations of appropriate behavior for girls and boys, which differs. There are also physiological differences in girls and boys that impact their learning and behavior. Both are important to understand to ensure the development of girls and boys are supported by school culture and climates.
Developmental Differences: One Brain Running on Two Tracks
Research over the past few decades has demonstrated that the differences between male and female learning are rooted in physiology.  Boys’ brains develop differently than girls’ brains.  The areas of the brain involved in language and fine motor skills mature earlier in girls than in boys. Many studies show that male and female brains are structurally different.  This makes it easy to understand why more boys are identified with behavior issues, attention disorders and learning disabilities.
 One solution would involve schools restructuring the environment to arrange more time for movement, and teachers becoming more noise-tolerant.  Silent and seated is not a comfortable learning condition for boys, whose brains require more physical movement.  Boys may also tend to push the margins of authority more often, and engage each other in pecking order activities in order to establish hierarchical positions among themselves. Many boys panic over their lack of status, and the stress produces cortisol, which triggers the “fight or flight” instincts.  Combined with other hormonal issues, this often leads to misbehavior and academic struggles.
Studies indicate that girls tend to be superior in verbal abilities and that this tendency seems to cross cultural and racial boundaries.  Similar findings were shown through studies in South Africa—gender discrepancy percentages were roughly the same in blacks, whites and Indians.  Yet another study with Japanese and American students in Miami, Florida, produced the same results.  As a result, the differences in educational styles are basically innate and biologically based.
Males and females also differ in their preferred modes of receiving information.  Females prefer uni-modal learning, whereas males prefer multi-modal learning.  According to a learning style preference study conducted by Wehrwein, Lujan, & DiCarlo, 54.2 percent of females preferred a single mode of information presentation, while only 12.5 percent of males preferred this mode of information presentation.  Males tended to prefer multiple modes of information presentation, with 58.3 percent being quad-modal.  A responsive teacher might be wise to offer verbal as well as written instructions, a chart and a how-to-diagram, in the case of quad-modal learners. 
Because males and females rely on different areas of the brain for accurate language transmittal, the genders are processing language information differently, which may explain why teachers’ instructions are sometimes perceived differently. Recognizing the psycho-emotional differences in male and female learning styles and the physiological differences in their rate of cognitive development helps us understand why there is no single solution that will be truly effective for both sexes “equally.”
Socialization styles also influence learning climate preferences among girls and boys.  Girls tend to prefer a non-competitive learning environment and cooperative learning situations.  Boys enjoy the competition and find the win-lose structure motivational.  Girls are more organized, take better notes, keep journals, set goals for themselves and ask teachers for help and clarification.  Boys do not take advantage of help as often. Being aware of the aforementioned differences between boys and girls can assist teacher to successfully educate both genders equally.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Utilizing Culturally Responsive Curriculum in the Classroom

Instead of the “color blind” approach to instruction where students’ race or ethnic background is overlooked in the interests of equality, it is wise for teachers to be “color aware” in designing their classroom climate and curriculum.  Although students are individuals, they are also products of their environments—no one grows up in a vacuum.  A multicultural society is best served by a culturally responsive curriculum.  Schools that acknowledge the diversity of their student population use this model as an effective tool for school unification, as well as to promote cultural understanding.
 As a result, a culturally responsive curriculum is both inclusive in that it ensures that all students are included within all aspects of the school and particularistic in that it acknowledges and respects the unique differences students may possess. A culturally responsive curriculum also encourages teachers’ understanding and recognition of each student’s non-school cultural life and background, and provides a means for them to incorporate this information into the curriculum, thus promoting inclusion.
Schools have the responsibility to teach all students how to synthesize cultural differences into their knowledge base, in order to facilitate students’ personal and professional success in a diverse world.  A culturally responsive curriculum helps students from a minority ethnic/racial background develop a sense of identity as individuals, as well as proudly identify with their particular cultural group.  Schools with a culturally responsive curriculum strive to develop a balanced understanding of history—a perspective that reflects both the positive and negative experiences of all of America’s ancestors.  It is also important for teachers of “mono-cultural” classrooms to integrate multicultural learning experiences into the curriculum. Multicultural learning experiences tend to build a tolerant, accepting and non-discriminatory classroom environment. It fosters empathy and appreciation for other cultures, and prevents prejudices built upon ignorance and lack of exposure.
According to education icon, Gloria Ladson-Billing, students in mono-cultural learning environments should also be exposed to the history and perspectives of diverse populations. Such learning experiences expands their understanding of individuals they will likely encounter in a diverse adult world.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Examining the Impact of Culture on Academic Performance

A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.  This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world typical of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules. 
In other words, the Asian children see the world in terms of the relationship between things, whereas the American children see the world in terms of the objects as distinct entities. This information is helpful when we consider how cultural background might influence approach to learning and school performance.  There are a number of theories that seek to explain differences in school performance among different racial and ethnic groups.  Three theories stand out: the cultural deficit theory, the expectation theory, and the cultural difference theory.
The cultural deficit theory states that some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social, and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school. As an example, some students may not have as many books read to them as are read to children in other homes. Not being able to read has a negative influence on their vocabulary development. Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home. As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the level of vocabulary development expected. The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge, and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.
Expectation theory focuses on how teachers treat students. Teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.  When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations.  In these instances, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.
Rosenthal and Jacobson tested this theory in their Pygmalion Effect study. A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year.  Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation. All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year. Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors. Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them.
The cultural difference theory is based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learn in different ways.  It is important for teachers to be aware of the difference between the school atmosphere and the home environment.  People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. For instance, differences can be noted in the Polynesian concept of learning, whereby younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adults.  This is a very different approach to learning and one that may need to be considered in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students.
Teachers need to ensure that they incorporate methods of teaching in their classrooms that accommodate various beliefs and cultural notions students bring to school. This requires each teacher to develop an understanding of their student’s culture, but also to know who their students are as individuals. It is also important for teachers to ensure that they treat all students the same and to have high expectations for each one, so that they will all strive to reach their full potential.