Single-sex classes can benefit boys

Boys learn and develop differently for girls. Does that mean they should be taught separately?

Parents of boys have plenty of reasons to be worried about their child’s success in school. The statistics about boys’ academic achievements are worrisome. Far more boys drop out of high school than girls and boys currently make up only 40 per cent of college students. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behaviour problems (80 per cent of Ritalin prescriptions are for young males). At home and at school, a lot of hand-wringing is going on about how we can best educate boys.

One solution may be the return of single sex classrooms and schools. Although these conjure up images of places where the elite used to be educated — with their flannel trousers and striped ties — single sex education seems to offer significant advantages to some boys.

Selwyn House in Montreal offers boys-only education from kindergarten through Grade 11. Headmaster Hal Hannaford says single sex education reflects something many parents know intuitively: boys learn and develop differently from girls.

Hannaford points out that many boys dislike having to sit still for long periods of time and prefer hands-on experiments to reading and writing. So it’s no surprise that in many classrooms, the girls are sitting quietly, working away, while the boys fiddle with pens, tap their feet and lose interest in filling out worksheets. “Girls become the model of expected behaviour and boys can’t live up to that,” he says.

Hannaford adds that single-sex education encourages boys to develop stronger friendships with each other. “Students who go to boys-only schools tend to keep friends for life,” he says. “With the presence of girls, relationships don’t develop as much depth. When you take girls out of the equation, boys end up developing and cultivating meaningful friendships.”

Even some public schools are jumping on the single-sex bandwagon in the hopes of bridging the achievement gap between boys and girls. After decades of statistics showing that boys were less likely than girls to enjoy school, perform well on certain tests and to apply for post-secondary education, the Toronto District School Board created a Vision of Hope program, which will introduce single-sex classes and boy-friendly instruction and eventually even public single-sex schools. Roula Anastasakos, central coordinating principal and head of the board’s research and information services, notes, “The reality is we have a gender gap and we’re addressing the instruction in classrooms to help boys do better.”

But single-sex education has not trickled into Montreal’s public school system, partly for financial reasons, says English Montreal School Board spokesperson Mike Cohen. “The public schools can’t afford to do that,” he says. “There’s also no demand for it from parents.”

Over the past two years, hearings inviting parents to voice opinions on the kinds of classes they’d like for their children yielded not one request for single-sex classes or schools, Cohen says.

Still, the Quebec Ministry of Education has tested the notion that boys perform better when segregated. Since 1998, James Lyng High School, a public school in Montreal, has received provincial government funding to test the benefits of single-sex classes. The school separates students by gender for classes in several areas including math, science and English. Preliminary studies of this experiment are encouraging. After the first five years, students were attending classes more regularly and the number of students pursuing post-secondary education has doubled.

With parents today keenly aware of the importance of education in their children’s lives, more are starting to look hard at the school environment. They are asking how classrooms and schools can respond to the needs of all students, boys and girls. Separating the boys and girls may offer one way for ensuring success for many more students.

How are the boys doing?

Recent student census data shows startling differences in the ways boys and girls in the seventh and eighth grades view themselves. According to results, girls are more likely than boys to like school, feel accepted by adults and feel comfortable in school. Of all respondents, 59 per cent of girls plan to pursue post-secondary studies compared to 52 per cent of boys.

When it comes to elementary school kids, the gender gap is even more startling when results are tallied for standardized provincial exams. In the third grade exams, there was a 10 per cent gap between girls and boys in reading and a 14 per cent gap in writing. In the sixth grade, exam results showed an 18 per cent gender gap in writing.

Four books explore the challenges facing boys

The Trouble with Boys: A surprising report on our sons, their problems at school, and what parents and educators must do, Peg Tyre. As a journalist for Newsweek, Tyre decided to look into the growing gap in academic achievement between boys and girls, eventually expanding her articles into a book. She presents what science is now telling us about how gender impacts brain development as well as interesting research into how schools can best educate boys (one simple thing is to stop expecting them to behave like girls, a difficult or impossible task).
Boys Adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men, Leonard Sax. A doctor and psychologist, Sax believes that there are five factors that are harming boys today. These include a devaluation of masculinity, changes in teaching methods which favour girls, an overconsumption of video games, overuse of medication for boys (Ritalin for example) and too many endocrine disruptors, found in plastics and food sources, that may be harming boys’ hormonal system.
Real Boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood, William Pollack. A Harvard University psychiatrist Pollack delves into what he calls “the boy code,” which is society’s insistence on young men becoming tough, cool and unemotional. His chapters on the signs of depression in boys (who may act out rather than withdraw) is particularly helpful.

The Wonder of Boys, Michael Gurian. A
classic book in which the author takes a look at modern boyhood — what is working and what is not. He encourages society to appreciate boys for the complex people they are and offers strategies for helping young men find their place in the world.