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Girls and boys learn differently

The Toronto Star by Dawn Chan 28 May 2011

Would you put two groups of students, who speak completely different languages, in the same classroom with one teacher?

Probably not. You would most likely argue that to thrive, they need to be taught in their own languages. Yet, in a co-ed classroom, the divergent development of boys and girls means that this is essentially what happens every day.

The Toronto District School Board is debating whether to go ahead with proposed all-girls and all-boys schools as part of its “Programs of Choice” package. Amid calls for more research, it is unlikely these schools will open this year as previously scheduled. However, ample evidence already exists that by insisting on educating boys and girls in the same way, we are doing both a disservice. This was the motivation behind founding The Linden School, an independent all-girls school in Toronto, in 1993, and it is why single-sex education should be available to as many students as possible.

Many studies have shown that girls and boys in single-sex schools perform better than students at co-ed schools. In 2002, a study by the Australian Council for Educational Research documented that “boys and girls in single-sex schools were more likely to be better behaved and to find learning more enjoyable and the curriculum more relevant.” A 1985 Jamaican study shows that girls and boys in single-sex environments outperformed co-ed students almost across the board. These findings have been replicated in several school systems in countries around the world.

Many girls arrive at our school telling us they are relieved that they no longer feel pressure to dress up for school every day (to impress boys and girls alike) or to suppress their intelligence because being smart wasn’t cool. One of the main worries often associated with single-sex schools is that “the world is co-ed” and that boys and girls won’t know how to interact once they leave school. However, our graduates tell us that they feel capable and confident when interacting with boys because they have been able to develop confidence in themselves and their abilities in a safe space.

We applaud the TDSB’s initiative to make single-sex education available in the public system. However, the time it has spent bogged down in logistics is time it could have spent developing curriculum for these new schools. This is particularly important for same-sex schools. Effective girl- and boy-centred classrooms look, sound and feel different than co-ed classrooms because they are based on how each gender learns.

To be sure, not all boys and all girls learn the same way. However, evidence shows that these differences hold for about 80 per cent of girls and boys. For some students, co-ed schooling is a great option. However, we risk disengagement among that 80 per cent if we don’t offer them a classroom experience that gets them excited about learning.

Concern has been expressed that single-sex schools will support existing stereotypes of boys and girls. Research, and our experience as educators, has indicated that the opposite is true. In a single-sex environment, girls feel free to pursue subjects often viewed as more “male,” such as science and math, while boys, no longer afraid of not being viewed as “macho,” can pursue subjects like English and music without fear of judgment. A University of Virginia study from 2003 found that boys from single-sex schools were twice as likely to pursue interests in subjects like art, music, and foreign languages, compared to boys from co-ed schools.

All that said, it’s not enough to just separate the girls from the boys. For single-sex education to really work, teaching methods must be based on what works for each gender. If the TDSB is putting off a decision in order to do more research, then more power to it. But if trustees are still wondering if single-sex education is worth it, the data should put their minds at ease.

Dawn Chan is principal of The Linden School, a girl-centred independent school in Toronto.