Separate But Equal: Separating Students By Gender

Check out this interesting article by Karen Houppert in The Washington Post, “Separate but equal: More schools are dividing classes by gender.”

What a complicated issue. The author looks at a school in Washington, D.C. where students are separated by gender, a practice that has become increasingly popular in recent years. (In 2002, there were only a dozen public schools in the country allowing single-sex classes. This year, there are over 500 listed by the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.)

Boys are generally perceived as more competitive. Not surprisingly, the boys’ classroom observed for this article included lots of competitive games. The girls’ classroom was characterized by lots of collaborative activities, based on the belief that girls naturally prefer collaboration. Proponents suggest that this is nothing more than taking advantage of the preferred learning styles of boys and girls. Traditional classrooms tend to be organized in a way that favors the way girls typically learn, putting boys at a distinct disadvantage. Separating students by gender appears – at least on the surface – to provide a “win-win” by offering each group a learning environment that matches their natural tendency.

Like most things, however, it’s almost never that simple. How “naturally” different are boys and girls when it comes to learning? Lise Elliot, a professor at the Chicago Medical School says, “ If you put the research together, you are very underwhelmed by the difference” between boys’ brains and girls’ brains. “This whole Mars versus Venus idea that our minds are from different planets is really inaccurate.”

The issue becomes even more complicated – at least for me – when I ask some fundamental questions like, “What’s the purpose of education, anyway?” Is it exclusively about academic achievement? Let’s accept for the moment that boys are “naturally” more comfortable with competition? Won’t we all be better off if boys develop collaborative skills as well? If we provide them with a learning environment matched to their purported natural style, are we robbing them of the opportunity to expand their skill set and develop essential abilities like collaboration?

It’s the same for the girls. Even if we were to accept that they “naturally” prefer to collaborate, shouldn’t girls develop healthy competitive behaviors? There will be times when conflict arises and all of us are well served when we can advocate for ourselves, be assertive, and compete appropriately.

Collaboration and competition aren’t really opposites. They are two sides of one coin and we need both. I wonder if single-gender classrooms unwittingly promote academic achievement at the expense of social and emotional growth.

What’s the best course of action? Perhaps we should offer some single-gender experiences for kids if we think it serves them well. Maybe teachers should differentiate more effectively, providing learning opportunities for their students that are relevant and meaningful whether the student is male or female. Maybe placing kids in an environment that’s out of their comfort zone is ultimately a good thing. Maybe education isn’t just about higher test scores.

It’s clear that single-gender classrooms are becoming more common. Arguments can be made on both sides of the issue. At this point, I only know that I’m interested in what other educators think. Let’s get a lively discussion going!