Much has been written about the pros and cons of single sex schools as against co-education. Many have strong opinions, one way or the other, but what does research tell us about any differences in how our young people learn and what this may mean for how we best educate them?
There is considerable evidence that there are some general differences in how most males and most females see and hear, although these are not universal. Likewise we all have preferential learning styles and these preferences would seem to be differently distributed between males and females.
If we first consider vision, there is an old adage that boys prefer blue and girls like pink. It is true that most males are generally more receptive to the colour blue and show a preference for it. Most females, however, respond fairly evenly to the whole visible spectrum; they do not show any preference for pink, rather they, too, are more likely to show a slight inclination towards blue although this is much less marked than for males1. Traditionally it has been assumed that little boys prefer to play with toy cars whereas little girls would rather have dolls. Research shows, however, that whereas infant males in most primate species (including humans) will choose to play with a toy car, or anything with wheels, rather than a doll or similar motionless toy, there is no such preference amongst most infant females who will choose between a doll and a car with equal frequency.
Such differences in vision lead to different tendencies in the drawings of young children: most boys, given a free choice, use mainly black, grey or blue colours and try to draw moving objects (cars, aeroplanes and the like), whilst most girls will use a wider range of colours and tend to choose non-moving, drawing subjects such as trees and flowers, possibly because they are easier to reproduce. As most girls develop manual dexterity more quickly than their male peers, this combination of development, colour range and subject choice can lead teachers to believe, erroneously, that girls are intrinsically better young artists that boys.
Generally males hear less well than females and this difference gets greater with age. Although both process lower frequency (male) voices in the same part of the brain, it appears that most males process high-pitched female voices in a different part of the brain which is associated with music2. Males thus tend to have more difficulty in hearing and interpreting accurately high frequencies than most of their female contemporaries. Further, most males hear much more effectively in a forward facing arc of less than 180 degrees; most females have considerably better 360 degree hearing. Much is made of a supposed general inability amongst males to multi-task; in many other ways, males can, in practice, multi-task effectively but not aurally where they separate sounds less effectively than females.
What do these differences in vision and hearing mean for classroom teachers? For boys, incorporating moving images into any presentation can be helpful. In general one needs to talk louder to boys than to girls (who prefer quieter voices); in a co-ed class seated in formal ranks, this suggests that, on these grounds alone, boys should sit at the front and girls at the back, but most modern classrooms are set up less formally and such segregations are undesirable for other reasons. Thus a compromise volume is a more acceptable solution.
Learning preferences may be categorized in several ways but if we consider the main divisions into Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic, there is a markedly different distribution between males and females. Whilst a preference for visual learning is the most common in both sexes, many females have an aural preference and few are mainly kinesthetic learners. The reverse is true in males where few are principally aural learners and many more show a preference for a kinesthetic approach. Kinesthetic learners can become a distraction as they will often fidget if there is no their outlet for their desire to learn through action.
The best lessons will give opportunities for all three learning preferences to be employed but getting the right balance is potentially more challenging in a co-ed class. We also all use different types of intelligences in our learning (usually split into eight categories3) and these may be differentially developed in each individual, although here there may be such a range of differences within each sex as to make any generalization between the sexes less clear. Michael Gurian, however, is convinced that boys show more areas in the brain dedicated to spatial-mechanical strengths, whereas girls generally demonstrate a focus on verbal-emotive processing.
Girls, he suggests, are generally hardwired to be less impulsive, enabling them to sit still, focus, read, and write at an earlier age than boys4.
Again, the best education will provide for all of these multiple intelligences to be used and further developed in each student.
Two other factors will affect the challenges facing a teacher preparing to teach any given class: the range of ability and the range of maturity. For a given range of ability, a co-ed class will have a greater maturity than a single sex one as girls generally mature quicker than boys (the maturity difference being particularly marked between the ages of five and the late teens). Given that a teacher’s aim should be to teach effectively all the individuals in the class, the wider the ability and maturity ranges, the more challenging this task becomes. The very best teachers can teach effectively a mixed ability co-ed class, but narrowing either the ability or the maturity range (or both) makes the task more achievable for slightly lesser mortals.
Academic factors are not the only ones we should consider, however. It is important, too, that boys and girls grow up to be sensible, well-adjusted citizens who can empathize with and work collaboratively with others. There are social reasons why co-ed schools may have an advantage in this respect. It is important for future generations that we have the best women and the best men working together to run both our major corporations and our countries. The most effective teams will be those which combine the complementary talents of women and men: a lesson which far too many organisations seem very slow to learn.
So, in conclusion, is it better for a young person to go to a co-ed or a mixed school? The answer is that it is most important for that young person to go to a good school. There are marginal academic advantages in single sex classes and there are marginal social advantages in co-ed schools. Co-ed schools with some single sex classes and brother/sister schools can go some way to providing the best of both approaches, but all good schools will be strive to provide both the academic platform and the opportunities for social development to prepare their students for whatever their future may hold.
- Israel Abramov et al Sex and Vision in Biology of Sex Differences, 2012:3
- Michael Hunter et al Sheffield Univ/Neuroimage, 2005
- Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences, 1983
- Michael Gurian The Wonder of Boys, 2006