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While there have been single-gender schools in civilized society for centuries, it has been only recently that scientific research has shown us why such schools are a better option in many cases for educating young people. What has long been considered “old-fashioned” and even antithetical to the notion of gender equity is experiencing a revival as a growing number of schools look for better ways to serve students.
For the most part, cultural and social norms have driven the rationale for all-boys or all-girls schools in the past. Military academies, for example, such as the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, have known intuitively that middle school and high school boys thrive in a single-gender educational environment in which structure, discipline and character development are important parts of a boy’s education. We haven’t always known all the reasons why.
Now, the sciences that study how children learn and even the physical structure of the human brain are focusing on the single-gender component of a child’s educational experience. Their conclusion: Boys learn differently than girls.
Author and social philosopher Michael Gurian operates an Arizona-based institute bearing his name that trains educators, counselors, parents and other child advocacy agencies on teaching practices that help each gender learn best. Gurian’s research has identified several behavioral traits of how boys and girls learn that explain the growing attention to single-gender education.
As an example, the cerebral cortex of a human brain houses memory, attentiveness, language and other attributes that impact learning. A boy’s cerebral cortex is mostly dedicated to spatial functioning while that part of a girl’s brain is typically focused on verbal ability. By using this knowledge, educators can design instruction that targets each gender’s different strengths and therefore enhance learning.
Boys need to move around in order to stay alert and focused. They even prefer being on their feet during lessons and other learning activities. Girls often find it easier to sit still for longer periods of time.
Girls are more likely to prefer collaboration while boys thrive on competition.
Boys’ eyes function best in bright settings and natural light. On the other hand, girls are often better at seeing in dim light and at night. When possible, boys’ classes can be more effective conducted outdoors during the day.
Boys tend to excel in classes where the teacher is not only an educator but a mentor as well. For girls, that isn’t as important a requirement.
A single-gender learning environment reduces the distraction that results when boys and girls pay more attention to their gender counterparts than pursuing their own personal skills. Students are often more willing to take risks when they feel safe from the fear of failing in front of those of the opposite sex.
Single-gender schools allow for tailored curricula. For example, boys require more and varying stimulants to keep them attentive than girls do. They tend toward symbolic texts and diagrams that stimulate the brain’s right hemisphere where boys typically are more developed.
A greater emphasis on physical activity helps boys not only stimulate their brains but also manage and relieve impulsive behaviors. It’s no secret that boys have more behavioral problems than their female classmates. That said, boys and girls need different approaches in managing classroom behavior.
Even what one reads come into play, considering there are books that speak to the different concerns of boys and girls. For example, “Hamlet,” while a literary treasure for all students, can introduce a “coming-of-age” discussion on father-son relationships to young male readers.
Yet another benefit of a single-gender educational setting is that boys and girls can pursue roles that appeal most to them, rather than feeling the constraints imposed by the presence of the other sex. Students In a single-sex school, for example, have the opportunity to fill every role, from traditional sports leaders to scientific experts and even literary stars. Again, both boys and girls are free from distractions caused by the presence of their gender counterparts.
The theory of gender-tailored curricula was tested in a Florida public school where a cohort of fourth-graders was divided into two classrooms — one co-educational, the other all boys. The same number of students in each class covered the same curriculum. At the end of the study, the boys in the single-gender environment produced dramatically higher proficiency scores in standardized tests than the boys in the co-ed class — 86 percent compared to 37 percent respectively.
Understanding the differences between how boys and girls learn and doing something about it in our nation’s schools is critical to better preparing our children to become successful adults in tomorrow’s world.