The explanations for the differences between girls’ ability and boys seem
to lie not simply in their use of strategy or spatial relationship ability, but
possibly in how they approach math problems. Casey, Nutall, and Pezaris
(2001) assessed 8th grade students’ math abilities and strategies on a
spatial rotation assessment and on a subtest created with TIMSS released
assessment items. Boys, on average, had better spatial–mechanical skills
which lead to an advantage on the TIMSS subtest - boys did better on the
test because they demonstrated better spatial abilities. Casey et. al.
(2001) also found a difference in how boys and girls approached spatial
problems. Boys tended to depend on spatial strategies (mental pictures)
when solving problems that required them to mentally rotate a shape.
Girls tended to use verbal/analytical strategies (algorithms) for solving
these problems. So, why would girls and boys tend to approach the same
type of math problem but in different ways?
In his book, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers need to
know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, Leonard Sax (2007)
points out that there may be differences in male and female brains which
could impact learning, including girls’ approaches to math. Sax cites
research that demonstrates that at birth, girls and boys visual focus is
different. Boys tend to focus on mobiles (object motion and spatial
relationships) and girls tend to focus on facial expressions (analyses of
texture and color). Additionally, Sax cites research demonstrating that
girls and boys brains develop in different sequences, boys’ spatial
memory matures earlier than girls, and girls’ language ability matures
earlier than boys. Furthermore, Sax notes that girls and boys use different
parts of the brain in spatial activities. Females tend to use the cerebral
cortex for spatial tasks - the cerebral cortex is used for language,
understanding and interacting with the outside world. Males tend to use
the hippocampus - the part of the brain hardwired for spatial concepts.
Sax proposes that girls’ and boys’ brains are prewired to approach math
problems differently, especially math problems related to spatial
concepts. He proposes that girls are generally more likely to be interested
real world connections, while boys are generally more likely to be
interested in numbers for numbers’ sake.