English Teaching: Practice and Critique

Can neuroscience construct a literate gendered culture?

Volume 10 Number 2 July 2011

David Whitehead (School of Education, University of Waikato)

 The construction of boys as a gendered culture is not usually associated with neuroscience. Exceptions are publications and presentations by consultants on boys’ education who adopt a “brain-based” perspective. From a neuroscience perspective, my analysis indicates the selective use of primary neuroscience research to construct and perpetuate generalisations and stereotypic representations of boys as a gendered culture. In this article I draw on data obtained over 12 months from a boys’ school that engaged a consultant on boys’ education. The consultant selectively used neuroscience to construct a hegemonic discourse that constructed boys as a gendered culture. I analyse the consultant’s professional learning sessions, question the veracity of populist claims presented to teachers and indicate the degree to which this discourse about boys’ literacy ability and behaviour influenced the school as they revised their language policy and made commercial decisions. My observations suggest that, over the course of a year, the school uncritically accepted sufficient popular interpretations of primary neuroscience research to fulfil their intention of building a marketable, gendered school culture. I further note the existence of a parallel cognitive discourse around principles of learning that influenced teacher pedagogy. These two discourses allowed the school to meet its aims of i) building a gendered educational culture at a school for boys, ii) placing the school in a competitive education market (both primarily based on the discourse of neuroscience) and iii) meeting the educational needs of their students (based primarily on the discourse of cognitive psychology).