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
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
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
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
Let's start with one of the most basic facts about single-sex
education at the middle school and high school level:
girls in single-sex schools are much less likely to
experience unwanted pregnancies than are girls at coed
schools. What's the explanation for that fact? The most
common explanation put forward is 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
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,
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.
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,
At a coed school, your boyfriend is part of your circle
of friends, the people you hang out with. Your boyfriend
is part of who you are. 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 is put 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.
It should come as no surprise, then, that teenage
sex and unwanted teenage pregnancy are much more common
at coed schools than at single-sex schools. The
most obvious and undisputed advantage of single-sex
education is the dramatically lower risk of getting
pregnant in middle school or high school. To understand
how important that single benefit is, you need to understand
how common teenage pregnancy continues to be. Teenage
pregnancy hasn't been in the news much in recent years,
because the rate of teenage pregnancy is no longer rising.
But the United States continues to have the highest
rate of teenage pregnancy and the highest rate of teenage
births in the industrialized world.
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: 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 -- are much less likely to experience an