Is it an idea whose time has come? Or is it a “new-fangled” approach to public schooling that will be here today and gone tomorrow? Actually, the idea of single-sex education is not that new – many private schools have utilized this approach for some time. The relative novelty is that a public school is considering the option. Euclid’s Bluestone Elementary School is proposing same-sex classrooms as an option for the parents of second, third, fourth and fifth graders (http://www.news-herald.com/articles/2013/07/31/news/nh7317586.txt?viewmode=fullstory). The plan is to have one of each, an all-boys and an all-girls classroom, as well as two co-ed classrooms. Parents will be able to decide if their child(ren) would participate in a same-sex classroom or not, with an option to “switch back” if they feel their child(ren) would be so best served.
The National Association for Choice in Public Schools (previously known as the National Association for Single Sex Public Education) states that “In the 2011-2012 school year, at least 506 public schools in the United States offered single-sex educational opportunities. About 390 of those schools are co-ed schools which offer single-sex classrooms, but which retain at least some co-ed activities” (source).
The perceived benefits for separating the sexes in a learning environment include the fact that boys and girls may be “distracted” by one another for a multitude of reasons. Research has also shown that both boys and girls may benefit from the lack of gendered expectations. Girls may be more likely to speak up in class, be more assertive, show more confidence and to engage themselves in areas stereotypically defined as non-traditional for girls, such as science and math. Boys, in contrast, may be less competitive and more collaborative in interaction with one another.
Additionally, the National Education Association (NEA) noted that, “Girls who learn in all-girl environments are believed to be more comfortable responding to questions and sharing their opinions in class and more likely to explore more ‘nontraditional’ subjects such as math, science, and technology.” (source).
However, there are disadvantages as well. Gender stereotypes may actually be strengthened as social interaction between boys and girls are diminished, resulting on greater reliance on “preconceived ideas” rather than “first hand experience”. Additionally, the practice of excluding one sex sends the message that exclusion is acceptable. The absence of diversity based on biological sex in academic activities, with groups in collaboration and so forth further alienates the sexes from one another. Boys and girls will grow in to men and women who need to learn how to negotiate with one another in a complex social world that includes work and family. Additionally, by institutionalizing sexism, not only are gender stereotypes reinforced but they are granted legitimacy.
What does the research say? Actually, the empirical evidence is mixed, and for reasons that are beyond the scope of a short column. It may be that the larger issue isn’t that boys and girls learn differently as a “group” but that INDIVIDUAL boys and girls learn differently. When teachers can tap into the many ways by which students learn material, perhaps the discussion of segregating classrooms by biological sex will be abandoned. While it is easy to categorize students by sex and segregate them based on perceived ideas of learning styles, it is much harder to teach material to the learning style of an individual.
Perhaps the focus should be on finding the learning styles of each student and creating a learning environment that maximizes this style.