Is Single-Gender Education Better for Students?

Posted By Terri Williams on April 20, 2017 at 7:51 am
Is Single-Gender Education Better for Students?

Is single-gender education better for students? The Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, CA, thinks so, and for over 100 years, it has been educating middle and high school boys. This practice seems to be working for them, but is single-gender education better for most students?

GoodCall® recently took a look at the issue, which is – not surprisingly – complicated.

The pros of single-gender education

Christie Garton, founder and CEO of the 1,000 Dreams Fund, believes that single-gender classrooms can be beneficial, especially for girls. “They can foster better female-to-female relationships, which creates a sense of mutual empowerment and community,” Garton says. “Also, the absence of boys – especially in the teen years – can allow for more enhanced class discussions, where girls are more likely to speak up on topics that may feel difficult to talk about otherwise.”

The impact of this type of setting cannot be underestimated. “A huge part of promoting women’s global success is fostering an environment where girls feel completely comfortable speaking up, voicing their opinions and being heard,” Garton explains.

A passionate advocate of single-gender education is Dr. Linda Henman, The Decision Catalyst™ and the author of six books, including Challenge the Ordinary. Henman also taught at an all-girls school before starting her own business, and her daughters attended all-girls schools. She lists several benefits of an all-girls school:

  • An all-girls environment builds confidence. All leadership positions are held by girls; all the star athletes are girls; all the academic scholarships go to girls. This builds a mindset that girls can and should reach their potential.
  • The girls are nicer to each other when they don’t compete for the attention of boys.
  • There tend to be fewer discipline problems in an all-girls environment, so teachers and students don’t get distracted.
  • Girls concentrate on studies, not appearances. If they wear uniforms, they can be out of the house minutes after they get up. They don’t waste time on hair and makeup.
  • Studies indicate that girls and women speak less than males in a mixed environment. In an all-girls situation, I had no trouble engendering class participation.
  • When girls date boys from other schools, all the teenage dating drama doesn’t come to school with them.

In conclusion, Henman believes that a single-gender school provides fewer distractions, so the students can focus on academics.

The next advocate is 9-year old Samaira M, who invented CoderBunnyz, a STEM coding board game, and was the youngest speaker at CMG imPACt 2016 Women in Tech, 2017 WIT-Building the SHE-conomy at Microsoft, and has also spoken at tech events in Silicon Valley. Samaira believes that the opposite gender can be a distraction for kids. “I have boys in my class that sometimes do not add but subtract from the value of the class.”

She has also noticed something else while speaking at events and talking to women in tech about ways to interest boys and girls in coding and other tech topics. “People think that girls do music and poetry, while boys do math, science, and coding.” However, with single-gender education, Samaira explains that students wouldn’t be bound by stereotypes. “Boys could try music and poetry more, and girls could excel in math, science, and coding more.” Successful approaches to keep girls in STEM provide these types of opportunities.

The cons of single-gender education

While Garton believes that single-gender education can help girls form relationships and develop confidence, she admits that a routine lack of exposure could cause misunderstandings about the opposite sex. “In the workplace, men and women are expected to coexist peacefully, respectfully, and with a mutual understanding of equality, and they must be able to work as a team.” However, if employers are not accustomed to the opposite gender, she believes that they may struggle with these workplace dynamics. “This can contribute to workplace gender divides and possibly even harassment,” Garton warns.

And Samaira wonders if schools and teachers would be prepared for this change and how it would affect what is taught and how. She also believes that girls will eventually have to work side-by-side with boys. “So it’s better to start working with them early.”

The science

So, what does the research reveal? It doesn’t really support single-gender education. According to Julie Anderson, senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Studies do not find that girls or boys in single-sex K-12 schools or sex-segregated classrooms for specific subjects perform better than those in co-ed settings.”

She understands both sides of the argument, and explains, “Proponents of single-sex education tend to either believe in inherent differences in learning by gender that would be better addressed in a single-sex setting and/or that girls will perform better and be more empowered in an environment free from boys.”

And on the other hand, Anderson says, “Opponents are concerned that single-sex schools give undue credence to the differences between boys and girls in a way that perpetuates stereotypes, they point to legal precedent that separate is inherently unequal, and they argue that sex segregation does nothing to address the core issues of bias or disempowerment of girls in co-ed schools.” In fact, these are the types of issues that have led to a decline of women in computer science.

But, Anderson reiterates that there is no evidence that single-gender education has an effect on academic performance.

It depends …

GoodCall® also wanted a few male perspectives, and turned, first, to Dr. Michael Gurian, co-founder of The Gurian Institute, and author of Saving Our Sons: A New Path For Raising Healthy And Resilient Boys.

According to Gurian, whether students in single-gender K-12 schools or colleges perform better is based on two factors:

  • Whether the teachers/staff are trained in male/female learning differences, and
  • Whether the teachers/staff use the science-based brain strategies that work for boys and girls.

“One of the reasons single-gender schools often show quicker success results than co-ed schools is the requirement in single-gender schools of training on male/female learning differences.”

And this training produces a noticeable difference. “These teachers more quickly inculcate learning, discipline, and social-emotional development strategies that work for both boys and girls.”

Gurian does believe that shy and introverted girls may do better in single-gender classrooms, asking more questions, and taking the lead, whereas they might not in a co-ed class.

“Similarly, many boys who are raised without fathers and without enough masculine training to become mature and develop full social-emotional skills will flourish better in single-gender classrooms.” Gurian says these students will get male mentoring from teachers and even other male students. “Single-gender teachers are trained in and often specialize in how to build character, social-emotional maturity, and learning success for boys, so these boys succeed.”

However, he does not think that a single-gender school is better or a co-ed school is worse. “That kind of ‘versus’ language creates backlash and is not good for our schools, teachers, or students,” Gurian says. “Each way of teaching can be better for certain students.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Mandy Pekin, CMO of Wyzant. “The best learning environment for children is one that fits their specific needs.” Pekin concludes that ultimately, parents need to decide what their child needs and where they can obtain a quality education, instead of just looking for a single-gender education environment.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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