Monday, October 26, 2009

Single Gender Schooling in the news

The Ottawa Citizen had an editorial today on the Toronto District School Board looking at opening an all-boys public school.

This issue of single gender schooling and classrooms has been in the news a bit over the last few years as parents, teachers, and administrators try to find ways of reducing the "achievement gap" between boys and girls in school. Now, as I blogged about earlier, we need to be a little bit careful when we talk about gaps. Still, there is quite a bit of anecdotal and research evidence that at least some boys are not being well served by our current education system.

One idea that comes up is the idea of single gender classes (in coed schools) or single gender schools. I did some reading today about single gender classes and the overall research seems to be mixed. I think the best quotes that I saw talked about the need for teacher training if single gender classes are to have an effect.

from Gender based courses:
Dr. Leonard Sax, director of the National Association of Single Sex Public Education, a nonprofit organization that supports the availability of same-sex educational programs when appropriate, said segregating classes without extensive teacher training and parental input can quickly backfire on administrators.
“You can engage girls in computer science. You can engage boys in art and creative writing. But that doesn’t happen automatically,” he said. “Just putting girls in one room and boys in another accomplishes very little. In can actually have adverse effects if teachers don’t have appropriate training.”
Without the proper training and without enough parental and administrative involvement, Sax said, the classes can reinforce society’s gender norms, not circumvent them.
“If you simply put girls in one room and boys in another, and teachers have not had appropriate training, the result is that you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes,” he said. “You end up teaching girls with shopping analogies and boys with sports analogies. That’s not helpful, because not all boys like sports and not all girls like to shop.”

Another point that I remember reading several years ago, but could not find when I went looking, is that many teachers naturally connect better with either boys or girls. I wish I could find the article where I first read this, but personally, it seems to be true. Our first assumption would likely be that men are better at teaching boys and women are better at teaching girls, but this is not always the case. I know that in my teaching, I have typically had a better teacher-student connection with the girls in my classes than with the boys. I have also run across an all-girls class taught by a woman where there was clearly a major lack of connection between the teacher and the students. This means that schools looking at staffing single gender classes need to be aware of the fact that it can be tricky to put the right teacher in front of a room full of boys or girls.

A final point goes to my wife's experience teaching English this year. She has embraced a lot of technology in the form of using wikis and a SMARTBoard interactive white board. Using technology, along with some other ideas she picked up from professional reading, has allowed her to bring in more interesting resources (e.g. Google Earth instead of a photocopied map), get students doing different activities than they normally have in an English class, and offer more choice to students. The response has been that several parents of boys have told her "For the first time, my son is enjoying English class." Now, typically, my wife has not connected super well with boys, but her differentiated teaching as well as adoption of useful technologies has let her get a lot more interest, enthusiasm and participation out of the boys in her class. So, in the end, maybe the way to fix the "gender gap" is just better teaching, not anything structural or administrative.


  1. As a teacher and a mother of boys and girls, it is beyond obvious to me that the typical approach of female teachers in primary school is, on balance, not meeting the needs of boys. Simply put, behaviour modification is the ultimate goal of many primary classrooms. Intellectual matters do not come anywhere close in the rankings. Literacy and numeracy are usually, but not frequently or successfully enough, outcomes of the necessary efforts at socialization that take place in classrooms. Enthusiastic boys who are excited about the world and ready to learn, are discouraged by an atmosphere that values quiet submission while being apparently blind to real intellectual ability. Too often I have seen very bright male students, not just at the primary level, stereotyped as difficult students mainly because their teachers' focus was on classroom ettiquette and not on academics. I once witnessed a teacher telling an intermediate student that even though he had a better understanding of his science fair concept than any of the other students had of their own, he was getting a lower mark becasue his presentation was not attractive enough. Okay, presentation is important, but this example is a symptom of the problems faced by male students.

  2. Carol,

    Thank you for your comment. As a high school teacher, I am afraid I have only limited knowledge of primary school classrooms, so I find it hard ro comment knowledgeably about your points.

    The things you are talking about are reasons for considering single-gender classes. We certainly want to harness and use all students' strengths. To me, the questions is "how best to do that?". Like I said in the post, my wife's experience suggests that quite a lot can be done in mixed-gender classes by improving teaching methods and resources.

    My gut feeling at the moment is that only some boys and only some girls truly need single-gender classes to maximize their learning. The other students will be well served in mixed-gender rooms with good teaching. The key to getting the best results is likely to allow students and parents to choose the type of classsroom that will best suit their needs and strengths.