How Girls Learn

By GPS Blog

Do boys and girls really learn differently? What are the benefits of an all-girls education?

Here, we share the science behind how we teach and reach our students.

Intelligence, like any other aspect of ourselves, can be nurtured, supported, and developed. Yet, while we intuitively appreciate this lifelong growth mindset, our actions often perpetuate a damaging myth—namely, that intelligence is a fixed entity and that some learning is simply beyond our abilities.

This myth most consistently persists in educating girls and influences the approaches often taken toward their learning.


Best Practices for Teaching Girls

To best educate girls, one has to know girls—their motivations and their development—and then use the knowledge to establish curriculum and programs that provide them a space to best support how they learn.

While it’s no secret boys and girls are different from each other, brain studies over the last 20 years definitively prove biological differences—developmental, structural, chemical, hormonal, and functional—between the male and female brains. 

In fact, PET scans of girls’ and boys’ brains reveal just how differently those brains are set up to learn, according to Dr. Michael Gurian, co-founder of the Gurian Institute and GPS speaker in spring 2017. One teacher involved in his research noted, “Looking back, I’m amazed that [we] were never taught the differences between how boys and girls learn.” At GPS, our faculty have known for decades that our girls thrive in an environment designed to challenge their innate curiosity while fostering a love of learning.

What We Know About Girls

  • Early maturation
  • Early development of verbal skills
  • Highly relational
  • More emotionally and socially perceptive and expressive than boys
  • Explain and experience failure differently than boys
  • Experience a significant drop in confidence during adolescence

While there are exceptions, the majority of research notes key distinctions with girls: early maturation and development of verbal skills plus processing dexterity sooner in adolescence. Yet across all developmental stages, girls are highly relational and more emotionally and socially perceptive and expressive than boys.

Author Leonard Sax, Ph.D., who spoke at GPS in April 2012, writes, “Girls’ friendships are face-to-face, two or three girls talking with one another, while boys’ are shoulder-to-shoulder, boys sitting next to each other looking out at some common interest.”

In his book Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, Sax suggests that because of this, small group work is more effective in how girls learn than boys. Forming relationships and the preference for face-to-face interaction holds true not only with peers but also with teachers.

We know at GPS—through our conversations, community service, and curriculum—girls are also more empathetic in their educational and personal approaches, largely because they live outside of themselves, as well as for themselves. They are also overwhelmingly more interested in and focused on people and relationships. All of these factors are considered in GPS’s learning environment.

“We readily think of girls being at an advantage in language arts, and certainly the female brain in general shows that advantage; but how often have we lost our girls to boredom because they are reading yet another book about males and men?” writes researcher and neuroscientist Douglas D. Burman, Ph.D. To not only further a girl’s learning but also to keep it relatable, more intentional choices—in materials, process, and expectation—need to happen with girls in mind.

“The more we provide girls the opportunity to find relevance in their own lives, to personally connect with the people and topics which they are studying, and bring to life the content, the more they learn and comprehend,” says Lynne Macziewski, GPS Head of Middle School.

How Girls Learn Best

  • Effectiveness of small-group work, more so than for boys
  • Forming relationships with peers and teachers
  • Face-to-face interaction
  • Focused on people and relationships
  • Personally connecting with content


Best Setting = Best Outcomes

And while curriculum differences play a key role in educating girls, the environment in which they learn may be even more vital to their success. Extensive research over the last two decades on girls’ and boys’ development supports the educational priorities GPS believes and knows to be true: a single-sex environment is the most comfortable educational environment for girls.

Gurian, in Boys & Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents, offers important insight into how schools can help girls develop a different perspective on their abilities and achievement. “Single-sex options are, therefore, good ones. The psychosocial stresses are removed, to a great extent, from the learning process. As girls work with girls at this very difficult and vulnerable time, self-confidence can increase along with academic performance; girls, together, without hindrance from boys, learn to manage their own and each other’s transformations.” 

The essential support structure girls need for healthy exploration—both in their educational pursuits and their socialization—comes in the type of environment that is simultaneously challenging and reassuring. 

Psychologist JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., details a wealth of research on the impact of single-sex education in her book, How Girls Thrive: An Essential Guide for Educators and Parents. “There was a strikingly different quality to the atmosphere, character, and climate of the all-female class. The learning community that emerged was characterized by a profound sense of responsibility for learning, a special rapport between and among the teacher and the students, a spirit of co-learning, with both the teacher and the students feeling free to ask questions, admit mistakes, take risks, express confusion.”

Simply put, providing a space where girls feel safe to explore new topics, take risks, fail, and recover is key to developing the whole girl.


Relating to Girls

The biggest benefit that GPS provides is the development of relationships between peers and with teachers that fosters a healthy self-image and an unshakable self-confidence in our graduates. Among all research studies on girls’ development, the most notable and consistent facet of a girl’s growth is the role self-esteem plays in her life and in her learning. 

In Untangled, Lisa Damour, Ph.D., who spoke at GPS in March 2018, describes a research study that was conducted to measure the effect of self-esteem in how girls learn. “Creating a space for girls to learn where they feel comfortable is most important in educating girls. Single-sex education removes a lot of misconceptions about girls’ intellectual abilities and mitigates internalized bias by understanding how girls learn and how that learning supports their perceptions correlates with performance.”

Our students are with us during an extraordinary formative stage in life. Who they will become and how they view themselves and the world begins with a strong foundation reinforced by the adults they trust and respect. Deak writes, “The critical core of educating and parenting is to think premeditatedly and carefully and to plan experiences, in small increments, that over days and weeks and months and years help layer and therefore build the inner core of the child.” Therefore, girls need allies in their education and their social growth—at home and at school.

Inspire. Connect. Engage. Relate. Support.

“To inspire a girl to reach her highest potential,” Macziewski says, “means we understand how to engage her mind, body, and spirit in the learning process. We take our lead from her and, from the first day she steps onto our campus, walk this wondrous journey of growing together.”

Tags: How to Support Your Girl