As a high school English teacher who has taught single-sex classes over the last three years, I’ve been particularly interested in a recent study reporting the ineffectiveness of single-gender classes: “Single-Sex Education is Assailed in Report” and “Single-Sex Schools: Separate but Equal.” To be honest, I’m not even sure why our school instituted the move years ago since it occurred before my arrival. I suspect it was moved by the proliferation of books and research in the ‘90s citing this educational model as a cure-all for various educational maladies: the “boy crisis” (statistically, more boys disrupt the classroom, receive falling grades, and drop-out than girls) or the “girl crisis” (girls traditionally excel in language oriented classes as opposed to math and science). Actually, the first year I began teaching 9th grade English at our school, my classes were mixed gender. The next year, the upper school principal made the switch to single gender. There was little to no discussion about the merits of either.
Honestly, I’m not faulting our school here. This seems often to be how decisions are made in American education – from the gut or based on the latest research. But is it wise?
This year I’m teaching, as the dice has decided, just girls’ classes. From my experience, I’ve found that girls typically are quieter, more eager to please, enjoy discussions, and respond more readily to encouragement. The girls generally approach shared inquiry avidly; they like to talk through a story, listening to each other’s personal connections and attempting to sort out the characters’ motivations and conflicts. They can sit quietly in front of their computer screens, honing an essay in deliberation.
The boys usually are a bit more rambunctious. They like to act out plays, engage in scavenger hunts, and openly critique each other’s work. Last year, I entered my class on innumerable occasions to find my boys already present, eager to capture my attention. After watching “Dead Poets’ Society,” they all stood on their desks and greeted me with shouts, “O, Captain, My Captain.” Of course, if I’d segued into a discussion of Whitman, they would have drowned me with shouts of a different tenor. Or the day, I was impressed to discover all fifteen of them piled on top of each other on the small love sofa in my classroom.
No doubt about it: boys and girls, as a rule, are different. But that’s the thing, to make that statement, I have to use a qualifier, as I did with every statement in my last paragraph: “typically,” “generally,” “usually.” But kids break rules; each one doesn’t conform to the standard definition.
Even now, writing this, it’s easy to recall girls who were bored by fine-tuning an essay and boys who wanted to talk about how they connected to characters in literature. Admittedly, as a teacher, single-sex classes make my life easier. I know my audiences a bit better and can play to their strengths. But shouldn’t I be teaching to each individual student’s abilities, regardless of gender, race, social status, etc.?
I read the articles, cited above, highlighting this new research that casts doubt on the effectiveness of single-gender classes, but I was much more intrigued by the readers’ comments that reflected experience.
One father writes, “On a personal note, as a parent, I can say our daughter benefited greatly from a wonderful all-girls school … I’m almost certain our daughter would not have become the engineer she is had she missed out in this particularly educational opportunity.”
Another reader shares, “When I went to the top-notch Stuyvesant High School in New York, it was single-sex. I got a great education – except for the huge hole left in my maturation because I never interacted with girls. It took me a long time to catch up, and it was a painful time, too.”
A mother writes, “My 7 year old son is enamored of a girl in his class and thinks and talks of nothing else. It’s adorable, and very telling. We can’t pretend that males and females are not different and that they’re not interested in each other. Sometimes interested to the point of distraction, true. But in my view that is the teacher’s challenge to manage. We send our children to school to prepare them for life in the real world, where they will have to deal with all kinds of people. The world doesn’t set up your environment for your optimal success.”
A woman offers, “I went to an all-girls high-school, still in existence, private and non-parochial. It was — and is — in no way a “kindler, gentler” soft, educational experience. The girls can study a wide range of subjects including math, sciences, and engineering; there is no fluff. What I most appreciated about it, aside from the great education, and amazing off-campus opportunities for service and internships, was that we had no fear in the classroom or on the athletic field — no one was worrying about impressing their boyfriend, or not appearing “too smart,” or being either too jocky or too nerdy.”
Almost all of the comments on both articles begin, “I.” The writer wanted to use his or her personal, albeit anecdotal, experience to make an argument for students in general. But the cacophony of voices hums the same tune: I am unique and want my individual needs met. Everyone has been a student at one time or another, and we all return to our experiences to offer advice on how to better shape education.
Isn’t that the lesson we as educators should be learning? Each child warrants individual attention. That’s not a bad premise to begin with.