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The Declining Academic Performance of Men

PZ Myers points to a TED video of Philip Zimbardo (see below) that links the declining academic performance of men with arousal addiction: here, the transition from boys to men in our modern society is characterised by "digitally rewired" brains that are in search of constant arousal etc etc. Like Myers, I'm sceptical of these claims, but I think they are certainly worth investigating, just not in the fashion employed by Susan Greenfield (you know, she of pseudo-neuroscientific fame). What I would like to see answered is: Do all Internet-influenced societies see this general trend of declining academic performance in men?

Another research question we might want to test, or control for in our hypothetical study, is whether or not there is a correlation between the number of female teachers and male academic performance? I haven't bothered to look into the literature on this, so maybe a study has already been done, but female teachers certainly appear to outnumber their male counterparts in many corners of the globe (especially in primary school education). In Wales, for instance, I was astonished to find that 74.7% of teachers are female. My point: there might be a more obvious underlying cause as to why women are outperforming men, other than the rise of the zombie-generation of internet-addicted gamers. Still, I'm going to go with the cop-out approach and claim there are numerous factors underpinning male achievement (or lack of) in academia and beyond. I just wanted to point out that, in any study purporting to provide answers about declining educational attainment, you first really need to look at who is doing the teaching.

N.B. Since I started writing this post an interesting article has appeared: The Neural Basis of Gaming. Here is the abstract:

Video game playing is a frequent recreational activity. Previous studies have reported an involvement of dopamine-related ventral striatum. However, structural brain correlates of video game playing have not been investigated. On magnetic resonance imaging scans of 154 14-year-olds, we computed voxel-based morphometry to explore differences between frequent and infrequent video game players. Moreover, we assessed the Monetary Incentive Delay (MID) task during functional magnetic resonance imaging and the Cambridge Gambling Task (CGT). We found higher left striatal grey matter volume when comparing frequent against infrequent video game players that was negatively correlated with deliberation time in CGT. Within the same region, we found an activity difference in MID task: frequent compared with infrequent video game players showed enhanced activity during feedback of loss compared with no loss. This activity was likewise negatively correlated with deliberation time. The association of video game playing with higher left ventral striatum volume could reflect altered reward processing and represent adaptive neural plasticity.

  • Blake

    When I was in elementary school, at least 90/95% of the teachers were female and I recall them often telling us how much smarter and well behaved the female students were than the male students. I think your theory has a lot of validity.

  • RLB

    Blake - I don't think the OP was implying that female teachers in particular are indoctrinating boys into performing poorly. Rather, I think their point was about social learning theory and how effectively children can learn from role models they don't relate to, which is a slightly different issue.

    On the point of indoctrination, however, it takes only a cursory glance at heavily gendered toy TV advertising to see that the stereotypical traits of (unruly, adventurous) boys and (gentler, attentive) girls are reinforced far more widely than in the classroom. There's no reason to suppose that female teachers would do this more than male teachers.

    Our entire culture is entrenched in these dangerous ideas; to the point where even reminding a girl that she is a girl makes her perform worse in a maths task [1, 2] and the higher the number of boys present, the worse she will do [3]. I would venture that telling boys they don't like to cooperate and listen will probably make them less likely to cooperate and listen [4]. Rather obviously, this isn't easily reconcilable with successful classroom learning. Answers attributing it to some part of boys' predispositions or how their brains have been 'rewired' (as above) simply encourages approaches that seek to change the method of teaching enough to preserve/perpetuate gender stereotypes (because everyone knows boys just can't learn without running around brandishing pretendy swords, [5]).

    If I wanted to be adventurous, I'd posit that perhaps throwing out these gender roles would stop conditioning boys with the notion that listening and learning aren't boy-like. Over time it'd probably help with the social learning problem too, by making opposite-gender role-models less alien. Recognise another person as being more like you, and you'll relate to them more (and learn from them and treat them better, of course).

    [1] http://www.springerlink.com/content/l2442806u5423170/
    [2] http://www.jstor.org/pss/40063653
    [3] http://pss.sagepub.com/content/11/5/365.abstract
    [4] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Listen-Women-Cant-Read/dp/0752846191
    [5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tqrj1

    TL; DR Gender roles are damaging for everyone. Revolution!