Gender segregation in schools not the answer

Black schools. Gay schools. Male schools. Female schools. This is how the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has responded to the province’s 2008 call for increased focus on Equity and Inclusion strategies in Ontario elementary and secondary schools. It poses the question: can inclusion be achieved through separation?

Most recently, the TDSB has offered a proposal for single-gendered classrooms: readying 300 “boys-only” classrooms for the 2011/2012 school year. Pilot projects have already been offered in Brampton and gendered schools have been implemented in Calgary and Edmonton for some time.
The research on gendered schools is compelling. One of the leading scholars in the area is Leonard Sax – author of “Boys Adrift” and “Girls on the Edge.” His thesis is that boys and girls learn differently and schools have to actively accommodate this.

He argues that males need more frequent breaks, learn kinaesthetically, have shorter attention spans, like to write less and need more visual cues. Girls, contrarily, like to think, write, discuss, interact and reflect. They need fewer breaks and have longer attention spans. Furthermore, girls thrive in literacy while males perform better in mathematics and science.

However, there is an inherent problem with making such a broad generalization with sweeping ramifications on the education system. What do you do with the girl who wants to move around the classroom with the boys instead of sitting down for “reflection time” with the girls? What do you do with the boy who wants to sit, write and reflect on a question the teacher has posed?

Universal generalizations always have their boundaries and this one clearly does as well. In practice, the more effective solution to increasing performance for all would be complete differentiation of education on an individual level in a coeducational classroom. The feasibility of such an ideal plan, however, is questionable at best, impossible at worst. Teachers cannot be realistically expected to provide the differentiated education that each student needs.

As such, the better question and policy issue should be how to better allow teachers the opportunity to pursue increased differentiated instruction, not how to find a shortcut to reaching more but not all students’ learning styles.
It could easily be argued that a major barrier for teachers in creating a classroom environment where differentiation is possible is the issue of behavioural students within a classroom. They eat up the attention of the teacher who could be spending valuable time better understanding what each student in their class needs on an individual basis.

While gender may play a role, and while it has become popular to suggest that single-gendered classrooms are the way of the future in education, let’s first consider how we can help teachers do their jobs in existing classrooms. Figure out how to decrease the shortfall of educational assistants and provide the resource support to the behavioural students who need it.

And maybe by doing so, we will actually send the message that the Equity and Inclusion Strategy presents: inclusion rather than exclusion.

Isolate racial minorities and you think you have solved racism. Contain sexual minorities and you might think you have solved homophobia. Separate boys and girls and you might increase academic performance. But, did you really solve the underlying issue?

Teach that diversity is the solution — not the problem. Show students how to tear down the definitions of what constitutes a normal and average member of society.

Because once they’re out of the public school system and functioning in post-secondary education or in the workplace, they’re not going to remember what method their teacher used to teach them their alphabet.

But they are going to remember the values that that educator instilled in them — and that’s where school boards have both the biggest opportunity and the biggest responsibility. These are real children with real differences and school boards need to think long and hard about how they’re playing with their education.