Around here, one of the common topics of conversation among the parent community is, “where are you going to send your kids to high school?” We genuinely have no idea. Our options are made much more complex by the fact that all of the six high schools within walking distance of our house (two public, four private) are single sex.
When I talk about not wanting to send my boys to a single sex school, most parents are surprised that I would care. My reasoning is almost entirely about socialisation – I know enough people who found it very hard to talk normally to members of the opposite sex once they got out of their segregated environment to know how much the experience can (doesn’t always, of course!) damage your social life. My mother is a good example – she’s told me often enough how hard she found it to go from a girls school to doing first year science at university – one of 4 women in classes of 150. That’s obviously extreme, but I imagine she would have found it easier to cope if she’d be learning alongside boys in her highschool also.
Most of the reading I’ve done on the topic (a while ago) suggested that girls should go to single sex schools, so they didn’t get oppressed by boys who would stifle their willingness to speak up and learn in a classroom, and boys should go to co-ed schools so that the girls would calm them down and create a better learning environment. Hard to know where to find those girls willing to sacrifice themselves for the boys, though.
But a recent article in New York Magazine suggested that I’m way behind the times. These days, there is a whole industry in explaining just how differently boys and girls learn, and how important it is to provide a learning environment that caters separately to boys and girls. Many of the most exclusive Sydney private schools have bought into this – here’s one example.
But the New York Magazine article points out, gently but firmly, how methods based on averages fail to take account of the enormous distribution in attributes of both sexes. Even if boys, on average, hear slightly worse than girls (a hypothesis based on one very small study) – the range of hearing levels in boys and girls suggests that if you take an individual boy and girl, you chances are pretty close to even that the boy will have better hearing than the girl. Similarly for a whole set of learning attributes – boys are popularly supposed to learn better using visual spatial clues – but many girls will also.
So an educational philosophy that is based on separating out children using gender as a guide to learning styles is likely to misclassify many of them.
But the most interesting aspect of the New Yorker article, for me, is that the differences in results, if they even exist, are very small for middle to upper class children like mine. If single sex schools or classes make a difference, they generally only make a difference for children who are struggling. (which makes me sceptical about the effect – most children who are struggling will do better if teachers and a school care enough to try radical options, mostly because the teachers and the school are engaged, not so much because of the radical options). And in most contexts (at least in Australia) those struggling children are least likely to have any radical options available to them – their local state school will be it.