Teaching boys and girls separately — and differently?

There’s a fascinating pair of intertwined articles this week, one in the New York Times Magazine and one in Language Log. The Times article is the cover piece for the issue: “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately,” by Elizabeth Weil; the post in Language Log, “Scrupulously Avoiding Sigma,” is by my erstwhile classmate Mark Liberman. The reason I say that the articles are intertwined is that each one seems to quote the other. (Actually, I think Weil must be referring to an earlier post by Liberman.) Anyway, the discussions hinge on the question of whether scientific data and public policy actually support the notion of having separate classrooms for girls and boys in public schools from kindergarten through high school. Weil is sympathetic to the idea; Liberman is not.

Before commenting on the science, I want to give some personal and admittedly anecdotal views on the topic. I myself attending single-sex private schools from grades 3 through 12, first at Newark Academy and then at Phillips Academy, Andover. [Note that it’s not Phillips Andover Academy! This all-too-common error probably arose out of a confusion between Phillips Academy, commonly known as Andover, and Phillips Exeter Academy, commonly known as Exeter. But I digress.] While I received an adequate academic education at Newark Academy and an excellent one at Phillips, the social atmospheres at both were poisonous, overly competitive, and destructive. They certainly didn’t prepare me for the so-called real world. My AP Latin teacher told us that Andover would go coed over his dead body; that didn’t literally happen, but in fact he retired as soon as the decision to admit girls was announced. “I don’t know how to teach girls,” he claimed. This has never made much sense to me.

But back to the articles. Weil focuses on one Leonard Sax, who advocates full-time for single-sex classrooms based on several dubious claims:

Leonard Sax represents the essential-difference view, arguing that boys and girls should be educated separately for reasons of biology: for example, Sax asserts that boys don’t hear as well as girls, which means that an instructor needs to speak louder in order for the boys in the room to hear her; and that boys’ visual systems are better at seeing action, while girls are better at seeing the nuance of color and texture.

David Chadwell, one of Sax’s disciples and the coordinator of Single- Gender Initiatives at the South Carolina Department of Education, explained to me the ways that teachers should teach to gender differences. For boys, he said: “You need to get them up and moving. That’s based on the nervous system, that’s based on eyes, that’s based upon volume and the use of volume with the boys.” Chadwell, like Sax, says that differences in eyesight, hearing and the nervous system all should influence how you instruct boys. “You need to engage boys’ energy, use it, rather than trying to say, No, no, no. So instead of having boys raise their hands, you’re going to have boys literally stand up. You’re going to do physical representation of number lines. Relay races. Ball tosses during discussion.” For the girls, Chadwell prescribes a focus on ’the connections girls have (a) with the content, (b) with each other and (c) with the teacher. If you try to stop girls from talking to one another, that’s not successful. So you do a lot of meeting in circles, where every girl can share something from her own life that relates to the content in class.”

There’s clearly a certain amount of truth there. But the leaps of reasoning are staggering. Sure, boys and girls behave differently on the average. For instance, at the Saturday Course, classes are usually more orderly, productive, and civilized when they are heavily female. But I only say “usually”: there is a huge number of exceptions. I have taught all-male classes that were wonderful and coed classes that were not. (The all-male classes have always been computer courses, which get very few signups from girls. I notice that courses in art, drama, and writing get very few signups from boys. Sigh.)

Liberman’s response focuses mainly on the (mis)use of statistics by advocates of single-sex classrooms. For example:

The rhetoric of science journalism — and sometimes the rhetoric of science — all too easily engages a sort of pop-Platonism that seems to be deeply connected to the way that we think about natural kinds. As a result, small (but statistically reliable) differences in group distributions are seen as essential properties of the groups themselves, and therefore of all the individuals that make them up. Or at least, all the normal or typical individuals. Intellectual and social mischief often ensues.

I’m willing to believe that average test scores might improve if students were segregated by gender, but I’m not willing to believe that that would be true for any specific individual, not that successful citizens would emerge from widespread adoption of this idea.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston