Should female and male students be taught together in the same classroom? For decades, this debate has enjoyed its equal share of both proponents and opponents. Interestingly, recent research reveals that girls and boys do indeed learn very differently, which adds another level of consideration in the co-ed education debate. In fact, how teachers address the learning discrepancy between the two genders impacts academic performance – a factor critical in the co-ed debate.
The Debate of Cognitive Development
The Recent Academic Data
Indeed, boys and girls face different emotional and physical issues as young students. However, research shows that this difference also delves into the realm of cognitive development. In fact, research has found that boys’ and girls’ cognitive development results in markedly different performance abilities – which partially may be due to the co-ed classroom environment. In recent years, girls have outperformed boys in reading levels assessed on main tests. According to research compiled by educator Sara Mead, while the gap between boys and girls is smaller at the early elementary level, it increases as students reach eighth grade through high school.
When looking at the testing data in science and math, reports once proved that boys’ cognitive performance soared over that of girls’ abilities. While boys are still scoring higher on average than girls in math and science, it has been noted that males “outperform girls only slightly in math and science, in a less drastic proportion than girls’ achievements,” according to Mead.
Ultimately, testing data is forcing educators and parents to ask the main question: why are girls improving, and boys are not? While there have been no dramatic changes in the accomplishments of boys in recent reports, research is bringing light to the concerns of older boys’ academic performance, as the decline in their scores is “undoubtedly troubling,” as indicated by Mead. Indeed, this difference may be attributed to how teachers address the learning differences between the two genders – adding fuel to the flame of the co-ed debate.
Brain and Developmental Data
Research is also bringing attention to discoveries about a child’s brain development, and its impacts on a child’s ability to learn and function behaviorally. When comparing brain scans among boys and girls, research proves that the human brain actually develops and processes information quite differently, depending on one’s gender. For example, Margaret Ferrara from the University of Nevada reports that girls hear about ten times better than boys, while further brain research has found that the average male is developmentally two years behind the average female’s reading and writing levels upon entering the first few days of school.
When considering the disproportion among boys and girls in the realms of reading and writing, some argue that single-gender classroom instruction could help ameliorate the performance gap. Even in considering the simple differentiation between the genders and hearing can influence each student’s learning and comprehension. Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, reports, "Any time you have a teacher of one sex teaching children of the opposite sex, there's a potential for a mismatch, if only in decibel level […] If a male teacher speaks in a tone of voice that seems normal to him, a girl in the front row may feel that he is yelling at her […] Boys do best in school when they are yelled at by female teachers," according to Barnett and Rivers from the Boston Globe. In this case, there is support for both the single-gender classroom in addition to single-gender instruction, where males teach males, and females teach females.
Today, it is the popular opinion that the development of boys’ and girls’ brains are so different that they need to be taught in different ways, with different instructional strategies. Many news stories, documentaries, and parent magazines “claim that boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, making them predisposed to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and are best suited for relationships,” according to Barnett and Rivers. The awareness of these differences and accommodations made for instruction may help improve a child’s ability to learn in their classroom.
Looking Inside the Single-Gender Classroom: A Specific Case Study
As outlined by Barnett and Rivers, one case study examined the experiences and performance of students in single-sex classrooms
in a middle school for three years. The study was designed to provide teachers with an awareness of the difference in learning and development among students. During the study, professors from elementary and secondary programs explored how issues of gender were addressed not only in classroom instruction but also in textbooks and tests.
Compiling teacher reports for qualitative and quantitative data, reports revealed: “girls’ classes moved at a much faster rate and attained a higher overall class average than the boys,” according to Ferrara. Similar to the co-ed classroom, girls continued to outperform boys. Furthermore, “The results are surprising: little attention is paid to gender differences in learning preferences across the board,” as analyzed by Ferrara. While instruction styles differed in each classroom, as boys generally worked with more hands-on activities while girls were able to hold more discussions, textbooks and tests seemed to ignore the different gender-based cognitive variations.
Behavioral Issues and Instructional Variations
While girls continue to perform better academically, both in co-ed and single-gender classrooms, research supports notable differences in student and teacher behavior. In the single-gender classrooms, “boys and girls participated more and were less self-conscious about their work,” argued by Ferrara. Also, teachers noticed that girls spent more time working as teams, while boys did not show notable communicative variations, compared with their co-ed performances.
And while students showed some differences, an even bigger difference was found when examining teachers’ instructional variations. According to reports in co-ed classrooms, as outlined by the organization Girls Learn Differently, “teachers are more likely to call on boys and then go on to reinforce, praise and encourage them. When a boy gives a wrong answer, a teacher will spend time to help him reason out the correct answer. However, when a girl answers, a teacher is likely […] to move on to another student if her answer is incorrect.”
Ultimately, not all research argued for single-gender classrooms; moreover, research was generally striving to bring attention to the variances among the genders. A classroom did not need to be single-sex in order to achieve equitable learning, yet awareness needed to be paid to both the biological and psychological differences between boys’ and girls’ cognition.
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