First Published in Dutch on the 4th of september 2014
In a meeting at my university we discussed a research. Boys and girls were separately placed in an empty room without distractions and only with a machine with which they could administer small electric shocks to themselves. It was a research in boredom. What was the result? Boys administered themselves with shocks a lot more often than the girls. This result was – in the meeting dominated by women – seen as pretty shocking. I could not refrain myself from commenting: “It’s getting better and better! First, men were autistic and AD(H)D patients, now we also turn out to be masochists!” Some people laughed, and more jokes were made after which we went on with the agenda. My remark was more serious, however, than people thought.
Performing worse in education
In education and politics “the boy problem” has become a household term. It is clear that they perform worse than the women in roughly all levels of education. They have more study delay, quit more often, and have become minorities in increasingly more studies in higher and academic education. Their bad attitude and ineffective behaviour is broadly measured. They postpone work, overestimate themselves, are lazy and unmotivated, do not have overview or structure and so on.
Obviously, the question is to what degree there actually is a problem. The men still make most working hours in their career, they earn more money and have the highest positions. In other words, it depends on how you look at it. This essay, however, does not focus on whether there is a problem or not. I want to focus on the way in which the debate about the boy problem is held.
In conformity with the zeitgeist, we want to find a concrete cause for the remarkable difference in educational performances between boys and girls. In conformity with that same zeitgeist, we look at biology in general and to the brain more specifically. The results are there. In the vulnerable age between twelve and fifteen, boys experience an explosion of testosterone where girls produce oestrogen and oxytocin. In the case of boys, this leads to an increase in their kinetic and spatial skills but also to a more aggressive/active attitude. They are mobile, militant, impulsive and have little leaning towards conformity. In the case of girls, the verbal development increases and oxytocin makes them sociable and inclined to please others. Boys have a highly sensitive amygdala which impedes their control of their emotions and, to crown it all, the prefrontal cortex develops much slower in boys than in girls. Their executive functions (creating an overview, work systematically, reflection, and risk assessment) are less well developed than in the case of girls of that same age.
The above is the general scope of the research “Jongens … aan de slag!”, a rapport that is often cited in discussions on this subject. It seems to be a clear story. People come to concrete recommendations: offer structure and clarity, a positive approach, variation in class, active work forms, evoke reflection, and employ humour.
It strikes me that these tips are so unremarkable. They are recommendations that are generally known as factors that improve education for both boys and girls. So far, there is nothing new under the sun.
Even though the recommendations are reassuringly known, and the authors nuance their story by being inclined to talk about boyish and girlish characteristics (i.e. there are boyish girls and girlish boys), instead of talking about behaviour of boys and girls, I still view their treatment of this subject as worrying. I think that the rapport elicits a completely different message than the reasonable conclusions imply. Boys and girls are almost juxtaposed as different kinds of mammals. The anecdote with which I started out this essay reveals that this fear is not entirely unfounded. I have my reservations with the way the subject is dealt with.
Firstly, people lean on the neurophysiological differences between boys and girls. The idea is that hormones and brain regions cause behaviour that people in practice have to take into account. In this line of reasoning, the nature/nurture dichotomy is taken as a starting point; there are “nature” factors (e.g. hormones) and “nurture” factors (e.g. teachers) that determine and guide our experience and behaviour. These factors are independent and even opposites. A factor is either nature or nurture and one factor can even “collide” with another.
This dichotomy has been the dominant starting point in psychology and education for a long time. I often see a version of this appear in discussions on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In this, nowadays classic, conflict, the teacher blames the student for having too little intrinsic motivation while the student blames the teacher for not making the course enjoyable enough and for not being enthusiastic enough (extrinsic motivation). The former is a sort of nature argument, while the latter is a sort of nurture argument. These factors are also seen as isolated and opposite. A motivation factor is either intrinsic or extrinsic.
The question is whether this view is justified. It is ironical that especially the psychological movement that centralises the neurophysiological development, that is: evolutionary psychology, actively distances itself from this dichotomy. It is said to be artificial and false. I completely agree.
Nature and nurture are not extreme opposites but have to be seen as an organic whole. They are connected and as inextricable as conjoined twins. Our physiological, cognitive, emotional, and social development is no separate threads but form an inclusive development. They are inextricably entwined, and the untangling of those threads leads to little result on the level of our daily functioning.
For instance, research would show us that girls have a closer and larger corpus collosum than boys which would explain why girls are better in formulating and understanding their own feelings and those of others. But is this physiological development really separable from the socio-emotional and cognitive development of girls that are encouraged, at a young age, to express their emotions and to care for others? Our brains do not develop apart from the environment. They develop (within limits) according to what we experience. This is why blind and deaf people, for example, have certain areas in the brain that are more deeply developed than is the case with people with sight and hearing.
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is, for that same reason, a false dichotomy. Passion for a subject cannot be seen independently from the classes that one has about them, the discussions that one has about them, the books that one reads about them and the possibilities that one sees in them. On the level of human experience and behaviour, a sharp divide between the intrinsic and the extrinsic is unworkable and even right-out misleading.
The nature/nurture dichotomy ignores the active and meaningful character of our (learning) behaviour. Behaviour is described mechanically as passive cause-effect chains that are shaped by varying combinations of nature and nurture factors. The individual does not seem to play a role in this.
But behaviour is not caused by the hormones, the prefrontal cortex or corpus collosum. Behaviour is shaped on the basis of our physiological, emotional, cognitive, and social development and is alway employed within a context. That this development, and in effect our behaviour, is largely unconscious does not impede the fact that behaviour is active, bound to context and meaning, and should therefore be interpreted from that viewpoint.
The second side note that I wish to make is that the discussion is shaped from an implicitly normative perspective. This perspective claims that behaviour that is unifiable with education is better than behaviour that is less easily combined. The verbal, social, and cooperative behaviour that is attributed to girls is put in opposition to the mobile, aggressive, and recalcitrant behaviour of boys. People are one step away from saying that boys have too much testosterone.
This becomes apparent in the comment by professor Jelle Jolles who said that boys are one or two years behind in the development of their prefrontal cortex. Behind on what, for what? It is the same reasoning as the remarkable comment that nature is one month ahead due to a warm winter. Nature cannot be ahead or behind anything. At most, it can be ahead of our conception of what the timeline of nature ought to be. The same is the case for boys. They can only lag behind to our conceptions of what the developmental line of a child ought to be.
Moreover, the characteristics of taking risks and self-overestimation are seen as expressions of a less well developed prefrontal cortex. Jolles would even go as far as to claim that these adolescents ought to be protected from themselves. As far as I know, however, boys are not crashing down left, right and centre. They are not an endangered species. They develop in a way that they have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years and are, as I wrote above, quite successful in society. Their risky behaviour and self-overestimation is quite lucrative. Most psychologists claim that a certain degree of self-overestimation is essential for being psychologically healthy.
The normative character of the discussion is also apparent from the fact that the girl problem is almost completely ignored in education. The girl problem envelops fear of failure and stress. Nine out of ten students that I counsel with complaints of stress are women. Highly educated women have a much higher risk of having a burnout than men. This is an invisible problem in education because these women generally receive outstanding grades and only get into trouble later in life. Are we also going to talk about their hormone system, prefrontal cortex, amygdala and corpus collosum? We probably would not because we think, justly, that stress and burnout complaints have many facets that cannot be reduced to neurophysiological causes. Shall we deal with behaviour of boys with the same respect?
Raising, teaching, and mentoring
I do agree with professor Jolles that we sometimes have to protect adolescents from themselves. This is what we call raising, teaching and mentoring, and is equally applicable to girls as it is to boys. We can certainly take hormones and brain regions into account, but these factors have to be placed into a wider context where the agency of the student is centralized.