A Look at Single Sex Classrooms

single gender education, single sex classrooms, education, high schools,

By Carol Kaufmann from Reader's Digest

Leonard Sax is a pediatrician and psychologist in suburban Maryland who noticed an influx of second and third grade boys parading through his office for ADD evaluations. He found that many of them didn’t need medication. They needed, he wrote in his first book Why Gender Matters, “a teacher who understood the hard-wired differences in how girls and boys learn,” Drawing on research showing that boys don’t hear as well as girls, Sax thought that perhaps the reason had more to do with them sitting in the back of the room and a soft-spoken teacher than any learning disability or behavioral disorder.

Intrigued, Sax began to investigate how physical differences in girls and boys can affect childhood learning. Eventually, Sax came to believe that educators could address these differences if they wanted to – and, clearly, many did – but was bothered by the fact that most all-boys and all-girls schools were private.

So six years ago, he helped create a non-profit to train, in part, public educators to maximize learning single sex classes. There are benefits at every age, for both sexes, but the benefits are most dramatic for boys in kindergarten through grade 8, and for girls in grades 6 through 12.

According to Sax, girls’ educational horizons are narrowed during the middle school years. “I’ve seen girls who were really interested in computers or math in fifth grade, but three or four years later the same girl will tell you ‘computers are for guys.’ But if they attend an all-girls school during those crucial years, odds are much higher they will retain that interest or develop even more.”

Boys also benefit, but in very different ways, Sax says. In coed schools, it’s common for kindergarten teachers to ask students to sit still and be quiet for an hour or longer. “That’s just not developmentally appropriate, particularly for boys,” says Sax. “In an all-boys class, where their needs can be accommodated, boys can get off to a much better start.”

Sax is fully aware of concerns that publicly funded single-sex classes will hamper social equality and feed gender-based stereotypes. He even shares some of those worries himself. “Just putting the girls in one room and the boys in another accomplishes very little if the teachers don’t have any preparation in how to lead single-sex classes,” he says.

Sax says schools that prepare for the gender-separate format by seeing that teachers have proper training and engage the parents in the process have enormous success, both academically and otherwise. “Boys are more willing to show emotion, to read poetry out loud, to share their feelings. Girls show more interest in taking apart computers and building bridges,” he says. “Both girls and boys show more interest in a wider range of educational opportunities.”

A second, perhaps more substantive, critique of Sax work centers on questions about whether the science itself actually reveals the kind of physical differences that warrant single sex programs.

Mark Liberman, a phonetician and computational linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has analyzed the data relied upon by Sax and other social scientists – and has come away skeptical.

“Misrepresentation is found again and again in the literature of the current movement for single sex education,” Liberman says. “If you look across the full range of cognitive and perceptual tests in school-age children, you’ll find some where there is no significant difference between boys and girls, and others where there is a difference in the group average that is a small proportion of the variation.” These negligible differences shouldn’t be used as rationale for separating the sexes, Liberman maintains, noting that several other individual scientists agree with him.

Even if the science doesn’t ultimately prove the case, David Chadwell,still believes in his mission to provide single sex options for every one of South Carolina’s kids, and is thrilled to see that, for the most part, his approach appears to be succeeding.

“We probably will never be able to say for sure if each strategy is responding to brain differences, but the bottom line is what matters,” he says. “When teachers use these techniques, it makes a difference in the child.”

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