I've been reading Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax. It's aimed at parents and teachers but I've been trying to absorb its message through the eyes of a sailing instructor.
Sax, a psychologist and family physician, argues that sex differences are significant and are important to how children are raised, disciplined and educated. He dismisses the politically correct view that boys and girls only behave differently because in our culture we treat them differently. And he rejects just as firmly the traditional gender stereotypes.
Instead he presents research that shows that boys and girls brains do develop differently. And that those differences are crucial in determining how to teach boy and girls.
It started me wondering about the boys and girls I have taught to sail over the past six years. I have had some successes and failures with both sexes. But it is true that the kids who have progressed the most under my instruction have been boys. Is that, I wonder, due to some innate difference in ability between boys and girls to pick up sailing skills? Or is it perhaps that I, as a male, have found the right techniques to motivate and teach other males and am missing the mark with the females?
One gender difference that Sax discusses at length is the way that boys' and girls' brains are different in the way that they handle geometry and navigation. He says that researchers have discovered that females and males use fundamentally different strategies for these tasks. Ask a man for directions to a friend's house and he will give it in terms of, "Go south on King Street for two miles, then turn east on Duke Street for about a mile......" A woman asked the same question will answer, "Go down King Street till you see McDonald's. Then make a left, go past the hardware store and the Exxon station until you see the school....." In other words, women typically navigate using landmarks; men use absolute directions (north, south) and distances (miles).
I wonder how significant this difference is when learning to sail. It certainly helps to have a mental image of one's orientation with respect to the wind direction. This seems similar to the way a man navigates a city while maintaining a sense of which way is north. It must be tougher if your brain is wanting to navigate using landmarks when you are in the middle of a mostly featureless stretch of water. Or is my male brain failing to understand how a female sailor deals with this problem?
Sax also discusses differences between boys and girls with respect to risk taking. He says many boys enjoy taking risks whereas girls are less likely to seek out risky situations. I wonder how this affects their attitudes to some of the more scary aspects of learning to sail such as dealing with heavy weather or big waves for the first time?
The book also describes how both girls and boys are being shortchanged at school because teachers fail to understand and compensate for these gender differences. One very basic issue he raises is that girls hear better than boys. So a boy sitting at the back of a kindergarten class with a female teacher speaking in what seems to her a normal voice may not even hear most of what she is saying. On the other hand if a male teacher speaks in a tone of voice that seems normal to him, a girl in the front row may feel that he is yelling at her.
I guess I'm a yeller. I have a naturally loud voice. I tell the kids in my sailing classes that if I shout instructions at them on the water it doesn't mean that I'm angry with them or that I'm telling them off. It just means I want them to hear me. Having read this book I wonder of some of the girls are turned off by my yelling. Could be.