By Dr. Peter West “Should I put my child in a single-sex or coeducational school?” Every few weeks I get asked this question. Here is a recent example:
Dear Dr West
I am the mother of three boys. I am worried about my youngest son, who is bored at school. We have a couple of choices: a boys’ only school, or a co-educational school.I feel a co-ed school would help him socialise with girls. There are no females in the family (apart from myself and the very dead goldfish!). On the other hand, a boys-only school might be better academically. I want what is educationally best for him - academically and socially. I am writing to ask whether research has shown one form of schooling to be better than the other for boys. And are young boys better off in single sex schools?
This letter was emailed to me recently, though identifying names have been removed. It is typical of many enquiries. What this mother wants to know is the balance of the equation. There may be academic advantages in putting her son in a single-sex school. But she knows there are social advantages to be gained from spending his day with girls.
This mother has a good understanding of the literature, which states that there CAN be advantages in educating boys in a same-sex environment. As girls volunteer more, and speak up more often, boys will often let girls lead a discussion. I see this happen very often in university tutorials. Boys watch how the arguments go, then wade in with an attempt to sum up. They would learn more if girls were not there doing all the useful work which got the discussion going.
On the other hand, it is argued that girls settle down to work more effectively if there are no boys present. Some girls may hold back because they feel they do not wish to show up the boys. Each sex can at times spend too much time seeking attention from the other by means of comments, sending messages on pieces of paper, “accidentally” falling over towards another and so on.
An important consideration is that girls are more verbally fluent than boys. If lessons are aimed at reading, listening and certain kinds of writing, then girls will do better than boys.
Research by Ken Rowe at the Australian Council for Educational Research says that this is indeed true. This shift in schools towards more verbal assessment favours girls (as well as the small percentage of verbally-fluent boys). Boys can offer unusual ideas which may seem off the wall to middle-class, middle aged teachers. But these ideas can jolt the room into thinking in new and useful ways. Sometimes we have to remind teachers to tolerate boys’ wacky ideas and boisterous behaviour.
Writing offers a sharp contrast between males and females as I explain in workshops that I do. Girls are good at descriptive and explanatory tasks. They will happily sit down and write about their best friend, or detail what they saw on an excursion. Boys find such tasks tiresome.
Remember, too, that boys are wary about seeming too friendly with another boy, for fear of being labelled gay, and ridiculed. But boys will happily write about topics like “The world in the year 3000”, “How to fix a puncture” or “How I saved our town from terrorists”. Speculative writing and mechanical detail appeals to many boys. Don’t ever forget that boys enjoy doing tasks that strengthen their sense of strong masculinity.
In the playground, boys and girls again offer a marked contrast. Girls usually sit around, talk with friends or merely enjoy each others’ company. Boys would more commonly spend time rushing around, playing competitive sport, or making a great noise. Girls can be annoyed by boys who tease or shove them for various reasons. I have observed playgrounds in places as far apart as Edinburgh and Rio and this is what I see. Of course, nothing in this piece should suggest that boys are all the same or that girls are all the same. That is nonsense. But seen as a whole, boys and girls can offer some strong contrasts.
So far, these considerations suggest that boys and girls might learn better in separate classrooms and playgrounds, under some circumstances.
There is another side to the argument. Boys and girls can often learn from each other. Faced with a task, girls commonly work out carefully what they are supposed to do, and might check with the teacher if necessary. Boys would be more likely to rush ahead, start to manipulate materials and so on. Neither of these approaches is right; neither is wrong. Both can be productive. But boy-girl pairs can be one neat way of getting boys and girls to learn from each other.
Education is an enormous task: preparing oneself for life as an adult. It is far more than getting a school-leaving score. And so the whole question of socialisation must be considered. There are good grounds for believing that a co-ed school can indeed give boys and girls the full experience of adolescent life. Boys and girls might usefully co-operate in the school play, in debates, or in putting on a swimming carnival.
Some co-ed schools use some single-sex classes to get the best of both worlds. English is a very important subject which carries over into every other subject. It’s about clear writing; completely understanding what an author is saying; following instructions; and careful listening. As we saw earlier, girls and boys typically have different strengths and weaknesses as well as different interests. Reading is a case in which boys and girls often seem to go in different directions.
A US teacher wrote recently that her girls preferred Anne of Green Gables while the boys loved The Indian in the Cupboard.
In a 6th grade class, I was reading The Princess Bride. The boys were all quietly groaning until I read a sentence about someone who stabbed the villain, with the words (I think this is more or less right) “Take that, you bastard!” The boys roared with pleasure, and insisted that I read more.
Girls can tolerate reading about boys. But boys usually hate books about nice, sweet girls. Girls are usually happy to discuss - a word that fills most boys with loathing: “What’s the point?” they demand. Boys usually prefer to learn in active ways, often on the Internet, with relevance to their lives being the keynote. Thus same-sex English classes may be productive for each sex, while boys and girls could usefully mix for most other subjects, for sport and in the playground.
There is no clear-cut answer for all parents. Some children may learn more in a co-ed school; some in a single-sex. There are so many variables within these two large categories. What I usually suggest is that the parents visit the school with the child. They should talk to teachers and importantly, children at the school. The “feel” of the school is important.
Relevant questions are:
1. What results have been obtained in basic skills tests or similar whole- school tests?
2. How important is sport in the whole life of the school? Are children who are sports stars praised above others?
3. What is a successful student, according to teachers?
4. Do children at the school seem happy and friendly?
5. What special interests does the school allow children to explore, for example, in languages or music?
6. How many computers are available? How recently were they bought? What computer skills do teachers have?
If the school principal is unapproachable or unhelpful then he or she doesn’t really want your children. If she or he is friendly or helpful then listen carefully and think about the answers you are given. Schools are meant to serve children and parents, not be nice places for teachers to work.
Remember that there can be 100 different kinds of single-sex or co-ed school. Keep your eyes open, ask lots of questions, and follow your instincts. And if the school really isn’t working; if Mary or Johnny is really bored - change the school.
Reproduced from an article published on Online Opinion, November 15, 2006
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
About the author:
Dr Peter West recently retired from the University of Western Sydney. His work on boys' education and men's health has received wide attention. Many of his writings can be found on his website Boys Learning. He now runs a consultancy, Educational Solutions.
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