Advantages for Girls

What are the advantages of single-sex education for girls?
The advantages of single-sex education for girls fall into three categories:
(i) expanded educational opportunity, (ii) custom-tailored learning and instruction and (iii) greater autonomy, especially in heterosexual relationships. Let's look at each of these categories.

Expanded educational opportunity
Arguably the single greatest benefit of girls-only education is the greater breadth of educational opportunity which girls enjoy in an all-girls classroom. At every age, girls in girls-only classroom are more likely to explore "non-traditional" subjects such as computer science, physics (or the primary school precursors to the physical sciences), woodworking, etc. This finding is extraordinarily robust, having been replicated in every age group from kindergarten through college, and in every country where researchers have examined this question, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Jamaica, Iceland, and Kenya. Click here for more information about the advantages of the gender-separate format for girls specifically in computer science.


OK. Girls are more likely to explore non-traditional subjects in girls-only classrooms. How come? In his first book Why Gender Matters, Dr. Sax (executive director of NASSPE) describes the story of the Clear Water Academy in Calgary, Alberta. This prestigious private school was founded as a coed school and was successful for many years in that format. Then, in the fall of 2003, the school's leadership decided to reinvent the school as a single-sex dual academy: girls in one building, boys in another (identical) building. The director of music, Andrew Bolen, told Dr. Sax that during all the years that the school had been coed, all the students who played the trumpet were boys, and all the students who played the flute were girls. After the school adopted the single-gender format, there were two bands: a girls' band, and a boys' band. The band director told the girls that they couldn't have a band with 12 flutes and no trumpets, so some of them would have to learn to play the trumpet. Several girls volunteered -- and they turned out to be very good! If the school had remained coed, it's unlikely that any of the girls would have picked up a trumpet.

That story illustrates a phenomenon which some developmental psychologists call "gender intensification." "Gender intensification" means that when girls and boys are together, they are very mindful of what the prevailing culture says is appropriate for girls, and what's appropriate for boys. As a result, the coed format often has the unintended consequence of intensifying gender roles, despite the most enlightened leadership and teaching. Our culture is a sexist culture (and the culture of children and adolescents is even more sexist than the adult culture). The prevailing culture sends all sorts of gendered messages pushing girls and boys into pink and blue cubbyholes. Flutes are for girls, children tell one another, and trumpets are for boys (or so the children say). Physics is for guys, and art history is for girls -- or so the teenagers will tell you. You, the adult, can try to tell them otherwise, but in the coed format the forces driving "gender intensification" may be too strong for mere words to counteract. The single-sex format, with the right kind of leadership, offers a great opportunity to break down those gender stereotypes. In a girls' school, it's cool to play the trumpet.

Margret Pala Olafsdottir is an Icelandic educator who now oversees 18 single-sex elementary schools in Iceland. She makes this common-sense observation:

"Both sexes seek tasks they know. They select behavior they know and consider appropriate for their sex. In mixed [i.e. coed] schools, each sex monopolizes its sex-stereotyped tasks and behavior so the sex that really needs to practice new things never gets the opportunity. Thus, mixed-sex schools support and increase the old traditional roles."

Olafsdottir has developed a technique in the girls section of her single-sex kindergarten which she calls "dare training", i.e. training girls to take risks. She puts mattresses on the floor, and "dares" the girls to jump from a table on to the mattress. She also encourages the girls to yell as loud as they can as they do their jump. That's certainly one way to help girls "find their voice," la Carol Gilligan. Olafsdottir presented her findings, and some aspects of her technique, at our 2005 conference and again, with much-updated information, at our October 2012 conference in Houston.

 
 
 

Many studies demonstrate that middle-school and high-school girls who attend single-sex schools are more likely to participate in competitive sports than girls at coed schools.

 
 
 

Single-sex schools break down gender stereotypes. Girls become more competitive, boys become more collaborative.

 
 
 

Single-sex schools expand girls' educational horizons. Girls explore topics and opportunities which they would otherwise miss.

One explanation for the fact that girls at single-sex schools are more likely to explore non-traditional subjects, then, might be that the single-sex classroom encourages girls to be daring, to try things that they might otherwise not try. Another explanation is that girls in the girls-only setting have more freedom to explore non-traditional subjects. Imagine that you're an 8th-grade girl, trying to decide what courses to sign up for in 9th grade. You're choosing between an advanced Spanish class and a computer programming class. You visit both classes. The Spanish class is very familiar: basically the same thing you've been doing for that past several years. The computer programming class at the coed high school, you notice, has 18 boys and one girl. The boys are loudly boasting about how much they know and how proficient they are at computer programming. Which class will you choose?

Most teenagers, female and male alike, will choose something they know they're good at rather than risking embarrassment -- and a bad grade on their transcript -- in a subject with which they have little experience. And, few girls want to be the only girl in a class of 20 boys. It's just not a real comfortable situation. So, you sign up for Spanish class.

But, if you have the opportunity to sit in on an all-girls computer programming class, you might come away with a very different attitude. In such a class, you'd see other girls whose background is similar to yours, and who are doing very well in the class. Isn't it more likely that you'd be willing to give it a try?

This example leads to another explanation for the fact that girls at single-sex schools are more likely to explore non-traditional courses. Girls at single-sex schools have more diverse role models of their own sex. In an all-girls school, the most amazing "computer geek" is a girl, the student council president is a girl, the top scorer on the math exam is always a girl, the best athletes are all girls, etc. That experience tells younger girls, it's OK to excel in math, sports, and girls can be really smart with computers, too.


Custom-tailored learning and instruction
Jean and Geoffrey Underwood have published a series of scholarly papers over the past 12 years, demonstrating the extraordinary advantages of single-sex classrooms for girls. In one of their studies, published in 1997, the Underwoods gave 31 pairs of 8-year-olds a computer-based language task. Children were randomly assigned either to girl-girl, girl-boy, or boy-boy pairs. Each child within a pair was matched with the other for reading ability. The Underwoods found a dramatic difference in story recall, depending on the gender composition of the pair. Boys in boy-boy pairs performed least well, while girls assigned to girl-girl pairs obtained the highest scores. The most striking finding, however, was that girls in girl-boy pairs performed almost as badly as the boys did. Just putting a girl with a boy degraded her performance by roughly 50% on this computer-based task. This effect was highly significant (p < 0.001). In other words: paring girls with boys does NOT help the boys, but it does HURT the girls. Similar findings have been reported by other researchers, for example Inzlicht & Ben Zeev, 2003.

Best practice for the subject areas
First a few disclaimers. When you participate in one of our NASSPE training events or conferences, you'll hear our trainers emphasize that any statement which begins with the presenter saying "GIRLS LEARN THIS WAY AND BOYS LEARN THAT WAY" is almost sure to be false! There's lots of variation WITHIN sexes. That's one reason why single-sex education creates such amazing opportunities -- precisely BECAUSE of the variation within sexes. In the coed classroom, the process of 'gender intensification' (see above) kicks in so strongly, that the girls can easily get the idea that "any girl who likes computers is a weirdo or a geek." In the all-girls classroom, the girl who likes computers will find much greater freedom to express herself and pursue her interests.

Teaching is an art. Teachers have to customize what they do to the needs and abilities of each individual student. That's what 'differentiated instruction' is all about of course. And DI (differentiated instruction) is MUCH easier to implement in the all-girls classroom than in the coed classroom -- at least that's what teachers at hundreds of schools around the United States are telling us.

Our professional development events are seven-hour (one-day) or 14-hour (two-day) workshops devoted to a careful and systematic review of WHAT WORKS IN GIRLS' CLASSROOMS for each subject area, at each age level. Our focus is on PRACTICAL strategies which have been PROVEN to work with girls. With regard to English and language arts, one strategy which teachers have unanimously recommended for the all-girls classroom is the use of Role-playing exercises. Of course the traditional way to do this is to have the girls create skits, in which girls act out scenes from the book. Or, assign each girl to be one of the characters in the book, and have them discuss an issue "in character." For example, if you're teaching Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, one girl could be Margaret, another could be Margaret's mother, another girl could be Margaret's father, another could be Margaret's grandmother from Manhattan. They could then discuss the pros and cons of moving from Manhattan to New Jersey -- or the pros and cons of raising a girl in a particular religious faith vs. no religion at all. Each girl talks in the voice of the assigned character.

That's fine, as far as it goes. But all-girls classrooms really come alive when you let the girls take it one step further, or five steps further. Some educators call these next steps 'inductive exercises.' An inductive exercise might begin by asking a girl to imagine herself in the role of a character in the story - preferably NOT the role of a young girl (that's too easy, and too easily leads to gender-stereotyping). For instance, if you're teaching Hamlet, how would you feel if you were a young man and the ghost of your father told you that he had been murdered? Or take it even one step further. Melissa Newell, a teacher at MLC school (an all-girls school in Sydney, Australia), had her girls perform Hamlet with all the roles gender-reversed. In Newell's production, Hamlet is a young woman, whose mother has just been murdered; the new Queen has married Hamlet's father, who is emotionally frail and weak. At one point, Hamlet exclaims, "Frailty, thy name is MAN!" The production was a tremendous success and even led to an invitation to do a performance at the Globe theatre in London, England.

Some of the biggest difference in how girls and boys learn derives from the fact that girls mature differently than boys do. If you've read about the biologically-programmed differences in the brains of girls and boys, then you already know about some of these differences in brain development. In single-sex schools, teachers are (or should be) free to choose materials that fit the interests of their students. In coed schools, the girls are often held back or held down to the abilities and interests of the boys.

Greater autonomy, especially in heterosexual relationships
Wayne Commeford, who was then principal of James Lyng High School in Montreal Quebec, spoke at our first NASSPE conference, in 2003. He told us how the pregnancy rate at his high school plummeted after Mr. Commeford reinvented the school as a dual academy with girls and boys separate for all classes. The rate dropped from about 15 girls a year to about 1 or 2 per year. We have heard similar stories from other administrators. Why might girls at girls' schools (or schools with predominantly single-sex classrooms) be less likely to experience unwanted pregnancies than girls at coed schools? One might conjecture that girls at single-sex schools are less likely to be involved in heterosexual relationships than are girls at coed schools. But is that a true statement?

Katherine Sanders and Neville Bruce tested the hypothesis that girls at single-sex schools have fewer heterosexual relationships than do girls at coed schools. To their surprise, they found no evidence to support this hypothesis. They acknowledged that they "had expected that single-sex schooling might inhibit incidence of romances, at least during the school years. But this view was supported by only two of eight possible comparisons and the trend in four of the comparisons was in the opposite direction" (i.e. students at single-sex schools were more likely to be involved in romantic relationships). "Thus, it would seem that students from single-sex schools are not noticeably thwarted by any lack of opportunity or experience in the single-sex school system from experiencing romantic episodes, either at school or later in their early university years."

Source: Neville Bruce and Katherine Sanders, "Incidence and duration of romantic attraction in students progressing from secondary to tertiary education," Journal of Biosocial Sciences, volume 33, pages 173-184, 2002.


All right. If girls at single-sex schools are involved in just as many heterosexual relationships as girls at coed schools, how come girls at single-sex schools are so much less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy? Studies demonstrate that when 15- and 16-year-olds at coed schools form romantic relationships, they do so less on the basis of individual characteristics and more on the basis of where the teenager stands in the clique. The most popular boy in the group goes out with the most popular girl, the second most popular boy goes out with the second most popular girl, and on down the line, with the least popular boy paired with the least popular girl. Sexual relationships in this age group, far from involving intimate personal connection, instead appear to be more of an exercise in role-playing.

Sources:

Anthony Pellegrini, "Bullying, victimization, and sexual harassment during the transition to middle school," Educational Psychologist, volume 37, number 3, pages 151-163, 2002; also Bukowski, Sipploa, & Newcomb, "Variations in patterns of attraction to same-and other-sex peers during early adolescence," Developmental Psychology, volume 36, pages 147-154, 2000.


At a coed school, your boyfriend is likely to be part of your circle of friends, the people you hang out with. Your boyfriend's friends are likely to be your friends too. You all do stuff together, go places together. If your boyfriend dumps you, your whole social network may be at risk. So, if the other girls in your group are having sex with their boyfriends, it's hard for you to say no. Saying no to your boyfriend has the potential not only to jeopardize your relationship with your boyfriend, it jeopardizes your entire social standing at school.

At a single-sex school, though, even if you do have a boyfriend, your social network at school is likely to be separate from your boyfriend's group of friends. So, it's easier to say no. You have more autonomy over your sexual decision-making. It's easier to contemplate life without the boyfriend.

Bottom line: the available evidence suggests that girls at single-sex schools have just as many heterosexual relationships as girls at coed schools. But girls in single-sex schools are more in control, have more autonomy in those relationships, and -- as one result -- may be less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy.

 

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