Divided by gender

Educators, parents continue to debate the merits of single-sex schools

No one questions that boys and girls are inherently different, but educators, developmental experts and parents remain divided on the effectiveness of separating the sexes when school is in session.

Single-sex classrooms are more traditionally associated with independent schools. However, public schools in Canada have also experimented with the concept.

A co-educational setting remains

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the most popular form of education in Ontario. For example, out of the 130 schools that are members of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, executive director Barb Bierman reported that only two were single-sex at her last count.

Ottawa offers few options for parents who favour single-sex classrooms. Cheryl Boughton is the headmistress of Elmwood School, one of Ottawa’s only all-girls schools, and the only all-girls school in Ottawa that offers junior kindergarten to Grade 12.

Boughton has taught in both co-ed and single-sex environments, and said girls tend to flourish in single-sex classrooms. In a traditional co-ed environment, girls learn not to participate in class, which is a detriment to their academic success, she explained.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that boys overestimate their own ability but they underestimate risk and you see this in much higher accident rates among boys, for example,” she said. “So they believe that their abilities are strong and their risks of failure are quite low.”

Girls, on the other hand, do the opposite, she said.

“They underestimate their own ability and they overestimate risk and so that’s the problem in the classroom.

“For example, boys will put up their hand and answer a question even if they have no idea what the answer is. In a co-ed environment, girls will only answer if they are 100 per cent [sure] they are right.”
Class participation is integral to learning, said Boughton. At Elmwood, girls are challenged to participate in activities that help them to better measure their own ability as well as help them to better understand risk.

While Boughton has spent most of her career teaching at all-girls schools, she was also a deputy head at an all-boys school and said in all-boys environments, boys are not limited by gender stereotypes, which means they are more likely to participate in activities such as music and drama. “Boys are really freed from those stereotypes and really get to pursue their passions.”

The most common argument against same-sex schools is that boys and girls in these environments do not learn how to interact with each other, and are therefore at a disadvantage after graduating.

Alyssa Hartvich, 18, is a Grade 12 student at Elmwood School and has been enrolled there since Grade 7, when she moved to Ottawa from the U.S. She disagreed with the argument that students in single-sex environments are less prepared for interactions with the opposite sex. Hartvich said her classmates are confident enough to be themselves and do not feel pressured to act differently around boys.

“Everybody is very confident in who they are,” she said. “I still have lots of friends who are guys … I’m just me when I’m around them.”

She is also more likely to participate in class at Elmwood than she was at previous schools, said Hartvich, who plans to study kinesiology after graduating.

Alyssa’s father, Andy Hartvich, said he appreciates the focus on self-esteem at Elmwood. “Now when she hangs out with 18-year-old boys her confidence really shows,” he said. “It improves her ability to hold her own.”

Hartvich’s younger daughter was recently admitted to Elmwood and his son goes to school at Ashbury College – a co-educational school that was at one time all-boys. He is a supporter of both single-sex and co-educational environments and allowed his children to decide what they thought would be best. And Alyssa Hartvich is happy with her decision. “It was definitely the best choice I could have made,” she said.

Some educators believe children do not need to be separated by sex in order to meet the needs of both groups. Richard Messina, vice-principal of The Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Study in Toronto, recognizes that there are differences in the brain development of boys and girls. But he does not think that separating the sexes is the answer.

“Canada’s educational system gains much of its strength partly because of its rich diversity of students,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Gender is one form of diversity.

“Diversity in the classroom has led to an increased understanding of both genders, other cultures, and brought about change in how teachers present information.”

The Laboratory School, a University of Toronto project that serves children from nursery school to Grade 6, employs the philosophy of teaching students as individuals. “Our teaching reflects our belief that students have different needs at different developmental stages. Not all boys learn the same way – not all girls either.”
Girls and boys can learn a lot from each other and from interacting with children with a variety of learning styles in the classroom, wrote Messina, and teachers with adequate support and resources can cater classrooms to best serve both boys and girls.

Like Messina, retired Ottawa educator Elaine Hopkins prefers a co-educational system for elementary students. Hopkins co-founded the Bishop Hamilton School, a Montessori school, in Ottawa in 1983. Former executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, Hopkins has been involved with Ontario independent schools for 25 years.
“I think in general, in today’s society people don’t relate to each other very well and I think the more experience you have doing things together and getting to know each other, male and female, the better,” she said.

However, once students reach high school, separating them would allow for a removal of the distractions of sexual tensions in the learning environment, Hopkins suggested, adding that boys and girls could interact with each other through inter-school activities.

Meanwhile, Barb Bierman said it’s important that single-sex schools remain an option for parents.

“They know their children better than any school system would and they know best what their children need to succeed and to get what they need to become productive citizens and contributing to the workforce and economy.”

Author: Jessica Hinds
Photo: DepositPhotos.com