Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.
The debate about single-sex classrooms has hit the news circuit again, with recent articles on the matter popping up everywhere from The New Yorker to the Huffington Post to Teaching Tolerance to USA Today. Is this idea gaining traction, or is it just another idea being tossed around about education reform? In short, it’s hard to tell. According to the Huffington Post, the idea of splitting up boys and girls is getting very popular:
In the single-sex classes, teachers use microphones that allow them to electronically adjust the tone of their voice to match the level that research suggests is best for boys. When preparing for a test, the boys may go for a run, or engage in some other activity, while the girls are more likely to do calming exercises, such as yoga… They learn the same curriculum, they still lunch and play at recess together, but the differences in their learning environments are apparent, from the blue chalkboards in the boy classrooms, to the red paper hearts that decorated the wall of one of the girl’s classrooms.
According to one of the teachers teaching in a single-sex environment in a public school in Idaho, the differences in each classroom are driven by student interests based on what they are learning in the curriculum.
However, not everyone agrees that these subtle changes in curriculum are solely driven by student interests. Many believe that the curriculum is being changed based on gender stereotypes and, as such, are harmful to students. The ACLU has publicly spoken out against single-sex classrooms, and has started a letter-writing campaign to get schools to end single-sex classrooms. According to the ACLU website:
Social scientists have found that separating students by sex simply makes the contrast between the sexes more salient. And, when you look at what the proponents of single-sex classrooms are preaching, it’s easy to see the world segregated classrooms can create. Take Dr. Leonard Sax, who suggests that a boy who likes to read, does not enjoy contact sports, and does not have a lot of close male friends has a problem, even if he thinks he is happy, and that such a boy should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males,” and made to play sports. Yikes!
Margaret Talbot, whose article on the topic recently appeared in The New Yorker, agrees with the ACLU, as well, saying that she found it nearly impossible to tell her middle school-aged daughter that she would have to attend a single-sex math class, even though all of her other classes would be co-ed. While Talbot understood the rationale behind separating girls and boys, she couldn’t help but think of the talking Barbie doll that made waves a few years ago for stating, “Math class is tough!”
When it comes to education, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for what works. Some students might flourish in a single-sex environment, and some might not. However, it is the subliminal messages we send our students that need to be addressed when we separate young people based on their gender. The problem with single-sex classrooms in co-ed school districts is the various assumptions about gender we are enforcing. When boys and girls are separated for certain classes, the resounding message is not that boys and girls learn differently, but that girls can’t do what boys do and vice versa. These sorts of stereotypes can not only hinder educational opportunities, but can also carry through to society as these students grow up, and that can foster other stereotypes based on gender throughout these students’ lives.
Students are individuals. Separating them based on assumptions about their gender will have the same detrimental effects as separating them based on race, sexuality, or any other factor. By separating students, we are telling them that they are fundamentally different. Instead, we should be treating each student as an individual learner and allowing them to explore the learning styles that work best for them, regardless of gender.
Photo Credit: Tulane Public Relations
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