Podcast Transcript - Gender & Learning
Tracy Burton interviews Associate Professor Michael Nagel
This podcast series is designed to share valuable insights from academic leaders on current educational research and perspectives, as we all strive to help our young people reach their potential in today’s ever changing world. This is a transcript of the first episode, Gender and Learning.
TRACY: I’m joined today by Associate Professor Michael Nagel from the University of the Sunshine Coast who is an expert on Human Development and the Psychology of Learning. His research areas include neurological development in children, early and adolescent development, as well as gender and learning. Professor Nagel thanks for joining me.
MICHAEL: It’s a pleasure to be here.
TRACY: In your text titled "In the Middle: The adolescent brain, behaviour and learning," you studied how the brain develops during the teenage years and into early adulthood. How do these changes affect the way girls and boys learn?
MICHAEL: That’s a very interesting question. I think when we talk about learning there are a couple of things. First of all we know that boys and girls can learn anything given the right context and the right opportunity. How they engage with the world, can be a little bit different. It is not necessarily a question of learning style per se but the fact the chemicals within their bodies and brains engage in different ways, and so we know that for example that testosterone courses through young boys’ bodies in particular when puberty kicks in and as such behaviour impulsivity is one of those things that we see in typical boy behaviour. So that’s going to impact upon how they learn, depending on upon how the teacher engages with that impulsivity. If that makes sense, because if you see that as a behavioural problem and you are trying to correct it by punishment, then you are actually setting boys up for failure in many respects.
TRACY: So do girls and boys learn differently?
MICHAEL: Not necessarily and I guess that is one of the key things. It’s not about learning differently, it’s about how they perceive and see the world and engage with the world. I think that it is important for parents and teachers to know that first of all when John Gray wrote "Men are from Mars and Woman are from Venus" not all Martians are the same. So there is going to be a difference amongst boys but by and large there are things that go on inside the minds of boys and girls that allow them to engage with the world, or force them to engage with the world in different ways, and so it is important to understand what some of those are.
TRACY: And what are they?
MICHAEL: For example we have something in our minds, our brain if you may, called the Reticular Activating System. It does many things but one of its key jobs is to focus our attention. Now in boys what that means is - Evolutionary Neuro-biologists suggest that because we were designed to hunt and gather we are very prone to hear and be distracted by outside noise, by things going on around us, more so than girls. So for example if boys are in class and the Janitor /Groundsman comes by on his ride-on-mower that is going to throw the boys off and they are going to look out of the window to see what’s going on and it’s often difficult to bring them back on task. So these types of things are not atypical of bad behaviour and misbehaviour it is more typical of neurological physiological process of the male brain.
TRACY: So what then is the optimum learning environment for a boy?
MICHAEL: Well I think it’s one of those things where one size fits all environment isn’t necessarily good. We give kids the same size desks; we put them in a room. By and large most of the research evidence says that is quite suitable for many girls who tend to engage in the world in a particular way. What we know for boys for example is that movement is key; movement is the absolute key. Having boys sit for extended periods of time, and girls for that matter, but particularly boys, can be highly problematic. Getting them to move around a little bit helps alleviate some of the impulsivity that we see from the testosterone. Yet sometimes schools can be very sedentary places and teachers insist that kids sit still. I mean historically teachers were trained that a good classroom is one that is quiet, sitting still and focus their attention on the teacher.
TRACY: So you’re saying that in a subject, say I am an English teacher for example, that incorporating movement or just being aware of these issues would benefit the boys’ learning.
MICHAEL: Absolutely because what you will find, if we talk younger boys for example like younger boys say of six or seven, any parent with a son will know that boys are in perpetual motion and we have kids, boys saying things like sit still stop fidgeting. That’s almost like saying ‘hiccup now’ it’s a Neurophysiological thing that occurs inside boys. What you can do, by encouraging a bit of movement or having some structured movement throughout the day is alleviate those sorts of things. So if boys are rather impulsive or can’t sit still whether they be six or sixteen, having the opportunity for ten minutes or doing some kind of movement in class or giving them the opportunity to get up and move around can be highly beneficial. It allows them to alleviate that impulsivity and then they can focus on what they need to do.
TRACY: We have all heard the old adage: boys are better at Maths and Science and girls are stronger at English and Humanities. Is there any evidence to support this generalisation?
MICHAEL: Very little, in fact Doctor Doreen Camira who is a Neuro Scientist who passed away recently wrote a very lengthy book called “Sex and Cognition” which looked at all those types of things, those sorts of stereotypes. What we find that there are some aspects of mathematical processing that males typically do better but not enough to say that it’s a distinct advantage. Too often, many of those things are cultural perceptions and so we make those assumptions. We say those things and it drives behaviour in a certain way. I said at the beginning that we know that boys and girls can learn anything. It’s just how we approach them and the opportunities that we present them has a huge impact on that.
TRACY: When you say cultural, can you elaborate on that a little further?
MICHAEL: Sure, there is this notion that somehow females or girls are being more nurturing, therefore we steer them into a profession such as Nursing or Teaching, or any one of those areas dealing with people. While that might be the case there are a fair number of females who excel in other aspects and we should be aware of the fact that what we should be seeing is opening up opportunities for all avenues of study and letting girls and or boys decide which avenue suits them best.
TRACY: So on neurological level a girl’s brain is just as capable of achieving success in specialist Mathematics?
MICHAEL: Absolutely, absolutely. How you go about by doing that is a little bit different. So, for example I know in the United States at the moment there are many co-ed schools that have what they call ‘gender specific instruction’ so they might separate a classroom of boys and girls into two cohorts. They might teach the girls in a particular way on a particular content or subject area and boys in particular. Then bring them together and work to their strengths. So we know by and large that girls typically are far better at oral communication and so that should be something that is embedded in teaching Mathematics as opposed to boys who are far better at manipulating things. So it is the pedagogy that you use to engage the students that is critical to enhance the learning.
TRACY: And equally, boys can excel at English and Humanities?
MICHAEL: No question, no question. One of the things I think that happens at schools in the early stages, that kind of maybe sets boys apart or pushes them away from English is that we know that oral language and language skills typically develop in girls about two years ahead of time than boys. So a three year old girl will have typically the same oral capacity as a five year old boy. So when kids enter school at five years of age, girls are already two years ahead of boys. And when we start teaching them Literacy when they are at five or six years of age boys are already a little bit behind because of their embedded or their enabled language skills and what that does is it frustrates boys. This is one of the reasons why in Scandinavian Countries the formal teaching of Literacy does not happen until children are eight years of age because that is when the playing field sort of levels out. And so, that I think again, is sort of a cultural thing, that a lot of people are not necessary aware of until developmental differences, where we assume at five or six years of age boys and girls are at the same stage at the terms of their oral language and developmental language that is simply not the case.
TRACY: Why is it that boys develop at a slightly later stage than girls?
MICHAEL: Well there are regions of the brain that if you look at a developmental time line that actually do mature a couple of years later, a particular region of the brain is referred to as the Wernicke’s Area. Wernicke’s Area of the brain sits at the left temporal lobe, so left side of the brain and it’s a part of the brain that as your listeners are doing right now is they hear my voice or your voice and it allows them to comprehend language. There is another region of the brain called Broca’s Area which sits close to Wernicke’s Area and it allows you to put language together so that it’s kind of your syntax Grammar area. It does other things but it’s a fundamental function. Now we know in order to speak or write language you have to understand language, so Wernicke’s Area has to develop first and we have studies that tell us in terms of neuro development by and large Wernicke’s Area is about two years behind in boys that it is in girls. And so what that means again, it is not atypical to see three year old girls and five year old boys have basically the same oral language skills.
TRACY: If we look at Early Childhood Education, do you believe that the Queensland and indeed the Australian Curriculum is designed in a way that best supports your research?
MICHAEL: I think that the Curriculum by and large is in many respects does not take into account enough about the development, in particular the differences in boys and girls. If you look at the curriculum it typically talks about teaching students, teaching children and not often recognising some of those differences that are looked at in many other Countries.
TRACY: In terms of the recent claim that today’s curriculum and teaching strategies favour the learning style of girls and that the boys are being disadvantaged, what’s your view on this?
MICHAEL: Again it’s one of those things, and not long ago in Australia there was a Federal Enquiry into Boys’ Education and published a report called “Boys: Getting it Right.” The suggestion in that report was, one of the reasons that boys were getting into trouble was because of ‘in the eighties or nineties too much attention was being spent on girls. Resulting from that was $33 million dollars into where schools could bid for money to enhance education where it comes to boys. Now if you look historically you will find... I could bring in a myriad of quotes. In 2000 in Australia “Boys: Getting it Right;” in 1860 in the UK a report published on education that said there weren’t a lot of kids going to school at that time. It basically said that girls come to you to learn and boys have to be driven. Now if in 1860 boys are a problem or are having difficulties, in 2000 not matter who, they are slow learners. The rarity is it’s perhaps the context and not the learning style but the expectations. If you expect boys to sit still, sit at desks and conduct their behaviour in the same way as girls, then you are setting them up for failure. They just don’t see the world and operate in that sort of way and that’s highly problematic. It doesn’t mean that they cannot learn what is going on but they will have to do it in a different sort of way. So a one size fits all model is not necessarily the best model.
TRACY: Why do you think that it has become such a concern nowadays?
MICHAEL: Well you know statistics are an interesting thing and you can look at data. And what typically happens in particular political spheres is that data is cherry picked and you pick the things that provide a good sound bank. So while you can say that boys are in trouble, a key question is which boys? Is it not necessarily all boys, and what we see is there is greater risk of disadvantage upon those boys who are in disadvantaged areas or indigenous boys. So you can’t use a blanket statement to say all boys are in trouble because that is simply not the case. We also know that some girls are struggling. We know that bullying is on the rise, in particular cyber bullying. In aspects of bullying is that’s perpetuated more by girls. So it one of those things where you have to look at particular context and see what the issues are within that context.
TRACY: You said that ‘Men may be from Mars, but there are differences amongst Martians.’ And you touched on it then. There are so many highly diligent focussed male students in all of our classrooms… How do you explain the vast differences in the learning ability and behaviour of boys?
MICHAEL: Well that is the million dollar question and one that is often quite difficult to explain…I think the fact of the matter is that it again comes back to it’s not really a question of nature all of the time, it’s nature and nurture. Much of what happens for children before they even arrive at School is developed long before they step for the first time through the School doors. And so a lot of those habits and things are developed before they even arrive at School and may not have anything to do with how their mind is actually processing information. It might be what they have grown up with at home that allows them to sit and focus in a particular way.
TRACY: Let’s talk about the home environment and optimum learning environment. You said that providing a ‘stress free way’ is important. What should parents be doing at home to support their children?
MICHAEL: We are speaking in the early stages I suppose before they arrive at school?
TRACY: Let’s start there.
MICHAEL: We have decades of research to tell us that two of the most fundamental things that are important for early development in learning are ‘play’ and ‘exploration’. We also know that what parents can do, is not try to assume that every moment should be a teachable moment. Some of the various things that parents do day in and day out can be those time where you are cooking or when you are baking or when you are cleaning and you talk about what you are doing. Those are teachable moments. But the reality is that if you provide a loving environment and you take care of each other, again we have decades of research say the most important thing is that children need somebody who loves them madly and takes care of them. The relationships are fundamental to all aspects of development. That’s the foundation. From that foundation is about allowing kids to play and explore. Play often in our society is a bit of a negative you know because we think that it is idle time or it’s time not being busy where things aren’t being done. Yet again we have decades of research that tell me various stages of life that play is fundamental to all aspects of child development. I think probably what parents more than anything should do is not worry too much. We have seen in Western Society that somehow that this child has to have an academic CV by the time that they are five years of age and that in turn creates more stress. We have a number of children in North America, in particular in the United States at five years of age were suffering severe anxiety disorders because they are being asked to do things that they are not developmentally ready for. You can’t hyper stimulate the brain into learning. There is a trajectory; there is a time line of development that really has to be considered whenever you are dealing with children.
TRACY: What about the teenage years?
MICHAEL: Again the million dollar question… I am fortunate, I have a beautiful eighteen year old daughter and a sixteen year old son and I think that one thing for parents to remember, we used to think that the fundamental or one of the most important person for a teenager is their friends yet all of the evidence tells us that the most important person in a teenager’s life and adolescent life is a significant adult, usually their parents but is some cases it could be a teacher or a coach. So teachers play a very important role in supporting young people.
TRACY: Do you think perhaps that parents are perhaps worrying a little too much? We have heard the phrases thrown you know the ‘helicopter parent’ etc. What are your views on this?
MICHAEL: Well I think what we see happening is kind of an extension of academic inflation. I spoke earlier of where we are so concerned, that children are set up by the time that they are sixteen or seventeen and it’s an intergenerational thing. I mean if I consider my father’s generation, people finished school whether it is High School or University they stepped into the work force. Often they were in the same job twenty five or thirty years but we know that students graduate from university today. So if a student graduates this year in all likelihood that by the time they hit forty they change professions two or three times and jobs about twelve. Now that is what statistics are telling us. So young people today operate in a very different world than previous generations and they see the world very differently. And it is important for parents to be cognisant of that fact and not be thinking that just because a child hasn’t set up their career trajectory by seventeen it is not going to happen. Many young people don’t actually find out who they are or what they want to do now until they are twenty four, twenty five or twenty six. And it’s not atypical for many adults to change careers now more readily.
TRACY: Professor Nagel you wrote that ‘the creative arts can enhance the educational outcomes for teenagers’. How do subjects like Drama, Dance, Music and Visual Art enrich learning?
MICHAEL: That’s an excellent question... It’s one of the things that sadly, like play in early childhood, becomes a bit of a dream more than a reality. For Creative Arts it’s something that you do when all of the hard work is done. I mean I live for the day when I hear the teacher say if you don’t finish your work you don’t get Maths today. We do hear teachers say if you don’t finish you don’t get Art. Sadly we have again a large body of evidence that tell us that when children engage in Creative Arts all of the other aspects of education become enhanced. We know that Dance and Drama contribute to all measure of physical and cognitive development. There are many studies to tell that when kids are engaged in visual arts and music they are not just massaging the mind in terms of creativity but also the aspects of maths and aspects of literacy. The best thing about the world today I suppose of many aspects is that we have the verb called Google. Parents can Google and just Google what can Creative Arts do for kids? There are studies after studies and more studies telling us that Creative Arts should be essential to what we do in a framework to have the same measure of importance in the curriculum as do the Science, English and Mathematics. Yet we often if you look at the higher key of subjects we put English, Maths and Science at the top and Humanities in the middle and usually Creative Arts at the bottom which is tragic given that evidence says that it should be central to all that we do for students.
TRACY: So perhaps a broad range of learning experiences provides the optimum stimulus needed?
MICHAEL: Absolutely, the more experience you have the better. I think too that one of the things that is important is that you can also overkill that a little bit by having children trying to do too much too soon. One of the things that I find coming from Canada originally fascinated me was that when children enter the high school situation or in secondary school at fifteen or sixteen they are asked to make decisions about the rest of your life and channel studies and this and that and everything else. That’s a big ask for a fifteen or sixteen year old. So in some respects the evidence seems to suggest that a broad liberal arts program when you have Humanities. Maths, English but also Creative Arts is a very, very sound framework for all kids.
TRACY: One skill the Creative Arts definitely develops is a sense of intra-personal learning and knowledge and inter-personal as well.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Absolutely. The other thing about the Creative Arts and probably a lot of people don’t see is there are so many tangential benefits. So we have a study that tells us that it can enhance mathematical competencies and algometric competencies but there are also studies that shows us that people who engage in Creative Arts learn to get along better with people and to collaborate and cooperate learn a whole array of skills that are very beneficial for the 21st century.
TRACY: What can parents do to support their children as they change, learn and grow?
MICHAEL: I think that the most important thing is the word that you just used ‘support’ but also provide opportunities. Provide opportunities for your children to engage in different things. Don’t force them. You know one of the things that will turn young people off anything is when they are being told that they have to do something. So if you have a son or daughter who wants to participate in music or you provide opportunities to give him opportunities to participate in music, dance, drama, and soccer whatever. Let them find their way because one of the key aspects from learning is interest and interesting motivation. It is very difficult to be motivated to do something when you are told that you have to do it. It’s much more motivational for a person if they could choose to do something given the opportunities.
TRACY: There a few that fear that it won’t result in a career, there is no money it etc. But too few look at from the perspective that it is an experience.
MICHAEL: There’s a lot to say about that. One thing parents might consider that sometimes kids that are engaged in music or things like that and it’s a parent’s concern that it’s not going to do anything for them. There is a great story in the 1950’s 60’s there are two students in Liverpool in High School that failed Music and they were told that they would never really amount to anything. It just so happens to be Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Now if you think about the fact that they didn’t do well in Music in school and that people were trying to steer them away from it you probably wouldn’t want to push kids away from something given the fact that 50% of the Beatles emerged from the school and with a musical interest and were allowed to explore that interest to fruition. So I think that it is really important not to try and carve out a career for your child so soon. They will find their way if you give them the support and love that is so fundamental to their development.
TRACY: There is that fear of that competitive world and wanting to get ahead and having the best advantage and given the best advantage in life is perhaps some of this competitive nature of the employment seen feeding into this?
MICHAEL: It could very well be and interestingly enough it could be a generational thing as well. We are seeing research from Millennials you know those children born in 2000 who are talking about the world in a very different way. They are talking about the world being collaborative and being cooperative and not competing against each other. They are talking about injustices needed on so many others and it’s fascinating. It’s positive because they have grown up in a world of where they have access to information 24/7 and they are talking about things that maybe competition is not the best thing. Maybe we can create a world that is better by collaborating and if you look at some of the enterprises on the planet now ‘Google’ is an amazing organisation. Certainly it makes money no question but how they actually manage the company and how the people actually work in that environment is really quite amazing. Your listeners can Google ‘Google’ and have a look and see that it’s a very different environment how people are supported and nurtured and shown to grow and develop. It’s not about one-upmanship, it’s about collaboration and cooperation.
TRACY: As students graduate I read recently that the level of the skilled workers and unskilled workers especially in relation to boys that many of the jobs that boys once were able to get just simply aren’t there anymore. How do boys navigate this new environment of the workforce?
MICHAEL: Again you know it’s one of those things that where I think that I often think that sometimes we tend to look at going to University as the be all and end all and we don’t give enough credit to those careers and professions outside of tertiary education which is highly problematic. You know there are plenty of trades and professions that young people can and should engage in that actually allow them to have a fulfilling life and career and whether it be financially or anything else. And I think again that’s kind of a cultural thing and this might some a bit paradoxical coming from someone who works at University but you know a University isn’t the be all and end all to a fulfilling life. Plenty of young people boys and girls find careers through very different enterprises and once again I come back to ‘Google’. There are plenty of companies in the United States and presumably here in Australia but I am certain those in the United States that aren’t looking for University graduates they are looking for young people who are creative; they are looking for young people who have ideas; they are looking for young people who aren’t afraid to take risks and think outside the box so to speak. So I think it’s about looking for opportunities outside if say tertiary education isn’t your forte in the early stages, look outside and see what else is available. There are plenty of things going on in the world. My son constantly reminds me of a group of young men I think they are about seventeen or eighteen years of age. They are referred to as Sidemen - that’s their title and they are web designers and bloggers and I think that there are four or five of them based in the UK. He will probably have to correct me on this - based on what he said they are multi millions who are leading very productive and fulfilling lives doing different things and none of them had gone on to Tertiary Education and they found a love or a passion and have exploited that to their advantage and I think that’s fantastic. I think that truly when it comes to learning it’s about loving what you do and finding that passion and going with that and it doesn’t have to happen when you are sixteen or seventeen, it might not happen until you are twenty two or twenty three or probably in my case a little bit later.
TRACY: Professor Nagel thank you for joining me today.
MICHAEL: It’s my pleasure thank you for having me.
TRACY: We hope that you have enjoyed episode one of the Caloundra City Private School Podcast featuring Associate Professor Michael Nagel from the University of the Sunshine Coast. If you would like to learn for about Professor Nagel’s work simply Google Professor Michael Nagel and follow the links. This Podcast was produced by Tracy Burton featuring music by Paul Cusick. Thanks to Doctor Ricardo Simeoni for his audio support. Thanks for listening.