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In 1975, Jane was in the tenth grade. She remembers her first kiss with Tommy Burrows, Kate Harter’s incessant bullying about her weight and the time she and best friend Alison bunked school to go to the movies. English was her best subject, mathematics her worst, she enjoyed home economics and gymnastics and hated business studies. Science was a subject she simply never understood, as she proudly tells people when it comes to anything technical or medical. She confided to her Careers Advisor that she hopes to become an early childhood teacher as she loved interacting with young children, and at lunch times she sat around with her friends reading the horoscope in her favourite teen magazine.

Jane is a stereotype. There is no mention of her partaking in woodwork or shop and no expectation of Jane looking towards a career in physics or engineering. In general, girls and boys are seen to make different students. Boys read more science-fiction (or simply nothing at all!), girls more romance. They are expected to vary in aptitude in different skills and disciplines, to mature at different rates and to adopt different appreciations of study and success.

We expect differences between male and female students, and not without reason. We’ve all encountered the pop-psychology attitude that females are more creative while males are more logical, that ‘men are from Mars and women from Venus’… that men are the hunter, women the gatherer. And there are countless self-help experts fervently touting the notion that male and female brains are biologically different.

Just how realistic is this cliché? And is it relative to an understanding of how males and females approach scepticism differently?

It can’t be argued that there is some fundamental variation in the way males and females develop cognitively. It has even been demonstrated that testosterone has a large influence on the growth of nervous tissue in-utero, going so far as to establishing an increased potential for males to suffer from a range of neurological disorders later in life. The bottom line is that there are factors that create a subtle variation in how the sexes think; be it hormonal, neurological, physiological or sociological. However, can we extrapolate this so far as saying that boys are more successful at certain disciplines than girls, and vice versa? And can this have a direct influence on critical thinking skills a young person learns as they develop?

Society has evolved a great deal over recent decades. The days of segregating males and female students into ‘gender-specific’ disciplines are thankfully passing, with the likes of domestic economics and design and technology being commonly open to both sexes. With this change it is easy to see that society imposes expectations of aptitude on certain disciplines. ‘Genderising’ school subjects had more to do with the expected roles sexes play in society rather than any real difference in learning, however this was commonly extrapolated to mean men and women innately differed in how competent each could be in a given discipline.

Figures continue to show that male students on average outperform female students in mathematical and science subjects, while the reciprocal seems to stand for dramatic and language subjects. The skills required for each are obviously different, hence it could be argued that a very real bias is at work. The ways in which a male brain addresses a problem situation is typically different to how a female brain would address the same, with male methods appreciating defined rules, pattern making and logic while female methods typically taking a more empathic approach, using flexible scenarios and emotional reasoning. Such strengths and weaknesses can be attributed to subtle differences in brain structure; however social engineering reinforces such processes at a young age, therefore throughout childhood boys and girls continue to learn how to approach the same problems from different angles. So, biologically and socially, men and women vary in how they are influenced to learn key skills and knowledge necessary for living in modern society.

Sceptical thinking is no doubt such a skill, albeit an understated one in most of today’s education systems. Critical thinking skills are most prevalent in science disciplines and media subjects. Yet out of these two, science is the only discipline that is regarded as a ‘key subject’. Media as a subject is relatively new in many systems, and still suffers from being seen as an ‘option’ when a student chooses what to study. In any event, scepticism carries the stigma of being associated more closely with science subjects than any other.

If scepticism is seen to be synonymous with scientific thinking, therefore, could this be a key reason why it appears to be male dominated? And, if so, could changing the way science is taught address this bias?

It might be questionable that male-dominance in critical thinking is a real phenomena. Perhaps females are just as sceptical, but less vocal. In any case, the perception exists, and the question stands, ‘why does it appear this way, and what could an education system do about it?’

One thing I mentioned earlier was the role social engineering plays in determining how an individual addresses problem solving. Women are supposed to be emotional thinkers, while men are supposed to shun such ‘feminine’ approaches, just as boys are supposed to like trucks and girls are supposed to like dolls. And state-education has encouraged this until recent years.

Scepticism is essentially a method for attributing value to information in anticipation of making a predictable decision. It is indeed a skill useful in science disciplines, yet as we well know, it is a skill that should be prevalent in how we approach all problems in life. Evaluation of information is just as useful regardless of whether you are deciding on which spaghetti you will eat for dinner or which treatment to take for your illness. Perhaps defining skills such as critical thinking on the basis of their subject during education years has had a detrimental effect on which members of society accept it as a life-skill.

A movement becoming prevalent in many education systems over the world in recent years is something called ‘integrated curricula’. Subjects in younger grades are taught within units focussing on a topic rather than a discipline. It is focussed more on skill outcomes rather than just knowledge, and intends to teach that a skill has multiple applications across a discipline field. You might learn how to graph data, develop an oral presentation, research facts, learn about different countries and planet rotation and sketch pictures all in a unit on ‘Great Explorers’, which are all essential skills yet don’t tend to belong in any one single subject.

Scepticism is a cross-discipline skill, yet often suffers from being seen as being ‘scientific’. Indeed, studies show that females tend to do better at various media subjects than males, in which critical thinking and scepticism play large roles. Could the erroneous perception of science be a cause of male bias in scepticism?

There is no single easy answer. Education plays a central role in addressing bias, and it is here that the battle will be fought. From personal experience as a teacher I can say that there is little difference in critical thinking amongst younger students in science, while males tend to be more critical in the older grades. I believe that males learn to be more critical than females, rather than it being an innate, biological difference.

Scepticism can often be socially isolating for a person, dividing individuals away from a group because of a criticism of a group-embraced belief. Females are encouraged to be empathic thinkers and do well in disciplines that utilise this, while science-subjects hold little need for such an approach towards problem solving.

Breaking down the boundaries between what constitutes a ‘discipline’ at school, and noting the importance for students to focus on skill acquisition over subject knowledge, might make a difference in how women approach scepticism.

If Jane Powell faced different decisions in her choice of subjects and was taught them a little differently, I doubt she would have changed her mind about being an early childhood teacher. Her life would be little different. I’d even venture that she would still read the horoscope at lunch times. But perhaps her approach to problem solving would be just a little more critical on occasion, forfeiting her usual excuse of ‘I was never very good at science in high school’.

Mike McRae was Victor Frankenstein's original attempt at creating life. Crafted from the scavenged body parts of a scientist, a secondary school teacher, a writer and an artist, he is a mongrel who defies defining. Currently Mike is working as a science communicator in Canberra, Australia, doing his best to fit into human society while encouraging a wary public to be enthusiastic about science and critical thinking. Approach with caution.


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