Imagine a world where boys and girls are segregated in education, where students are taught differently based on claimed “biological differences.” Boys are placed in brightly lit classrooms with teachers who are highly active and speak in loud voices. Girls are placed in dimly lit classrooms with yellow lights and teachers who explain how to complete each assignment step by step; these instructors know that girls have trouble figuring things out for themselves. In this world, teaching styles are based purely on gendered stereotypes wherein segregation conveys to students that the most important thing about them is their sex. While it’s clear that a situation such as this would hinder any hope for equality between the sexes, this world is starting to become our reality.
Single-sex education is on the rise, particularly in public elementary and high school schools. In 2001, only 11 public schools in the United States offered single-sex classrooms. Since then, that number has grown to 540. Unlike gendered schools of the past, such as Smith College, which was founded to put women on equal footing with men, the new push towards single-sex education has its roots in inherently sexist ideals. Citing neuroscience to support their claims, proponents of the movement believe that if the genders are separated, instructors can tailor their teaching to fit the learning styles of the different sexes. However, research in the sector of neuroscience is complex and much proves to be inconclusive.
The field of neuroscience can be very complex, inspiring numerous misconceptions. To begin, a scan of the brain does not show physical detail, but rather, tracks the areas of the brain with changes in blood oxygen levels. Using this data, scientists deduce brain activity. In addition, neuroscience is an infantile field, and results are far from perfect.
In one humorous but telling study, Craig Bennett, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues placed a dead salmon in an MRI machine and recorded a reading. Next, they showed the salmon pictures of humans — as is often done in brain activity scans — and recorded a second reading. Surprisingly enough, the two readings were different, demonstrating not only that the dead fish’s brain responded to the images, but the margin of error in neuroimaging. But what’s more shocking is that this error is often not corrected; the field is so new and complex that mathematicians are unsure of the best way to correct for these errors. If a dead salmon can appear to generate an emotional response, imagine how this error can be translated when human subjects are involved. “Evidence” showing brain differences between men and women may well be the result of errors during neuroimaging.
Recent research suggests that it’s not the gender of the brain that matters, but its size. On average, males have larger brains that aren’t simply scaled up versions of smaller (typically female) brains. Bigger brains, as academic psychologist Dr. Cordelia Fine puts it, “create different sorts of engineering problems and so — to minimize energy demands, wiring costs, and communication times — there are physical reasons for different arrangements in differently sized brains.” This suggests that women and men may be wired differently so that they can think and behave similarly.
Even if neuroimaging scans did show, without error, that men and women had different levels of brain activity, it’s a far cry to say that boys and girls should be treated differently, like single-sex educators maintain. While the intentions of single-sex education supporters may not be bad, their ideas are certainly misplaced. They build their movement on the hope that students of every gender will be able to achieve a better understanding of the material presented to them. Along with this hope, however, comes a perpetuation of gender stereotypes that could, in time, hinder the struggle for complete equality. Let’s leave behind the idea that men and women are innately unequal simply because the infantile and mostly unexplored sector of neuroscience says they might be.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Reporter.