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Hands for the Future: The Positive Impact of Single-Sex Education on Boys
The bell rings. Time to get the academic day started. Students file in, one after another, taking their places and pulling out their books, eager to begin learning. Class commences, and the students listen attentively to their teacher, drinking in the lecture and conversing on the book’s content. However, something appears a little different about this particular class. The rows are filled with one kind of student. This institute is an all-boys’ school; and, as such, prepares these young men in a manner unmatched by other schools.
Much research has been done into the effects of single-sex schooling on women, with many positive results. The benefits of such an education are rarely acknowledged in regards to another demographic, though – boys. Single-sex schools offer numerous advantages to boys as they encourage exploration in diverse academic material and promote engagement within the classroom and beyond, while free from the typical social expectations that plague the academic community.
As dismal as it may be, studies provide evidence that boys in today’s co-educational schools are struggling. Author Richard Whitmire has analyzed extensively the performance of young men in academics, and reaped disappointing results in his 2009 published work, Why Boys Fail. In situations where a student needs to repeat a grade, or faces suspension or expulsion, the pupil in question is more likely to be male than female (Whitmire 212). Boys do not pursue college education as fervently as they used to; between 1980 and 2001, statistics of degree-seeking students shifted from favoring boys to a distinct domination by women (212). Twice as many parents had to discuss their sons’ issues with an expert than had to do so with daughters (213). English and verbal skills cause great controversy as well, while being one of the most significant differences.
At twelfth grade, more than a quarter of males rate as “below basic” writers on federal tests, compared to 11 percent of females. Just 16 percent of males at that age test as proficient/advanced writers, compared to 31 percent of females. In reading, a third of male students that age fall below basic, compared to 22 percent of females. Only 29 percent of male students are reading at the proficient/advanced levels, compared to 41 percent of females (214).
Clearly, there exist discrepancies between the academic achievements of male students and female students.
The next step, then, is addressing these issues in boys’ education, and providing them with a quality academic environment. However, this proves challenging indeed in a classroom mixed with both boys and girls, as the genders are naturally unique. One need only look to the research done by Dr. Leonard Sax, and his book Why Gender Matters to better understand the differences between the male and female brain organization. Consider the differences in brain use when concerned with that touchiest of subjects: spatially-oriented activities, such as navigation. According to Sax,
Neuroscientists have found that young women and young men use different areas in the brain when they navigate: young women use the cerebral cortex while young men use the hippocampus, a nucleus deep inside the brain that is not activated in women’s brains during navigational tasks ( Sax 26).
Consequently, women understand directions in terms of “tangible” landmarks and sights; men utilize directions and measurements. The different genders stimulate different regions of brain to understand locations and routes (25). Thus, girls and boys understand spatial and directional concepts differently, thus prompting the need to teach these topics using methods best suited to each gender.
Unique natures persist between teenage boys and girls relative to emotions as well. In a teenage boy, the brain activities dealing with the stress and other unfortunate emotional turmoil of young adulthood take place in the amygdala – the same location as in children as young as seven years old. In contrast, a girl of the same age has already established a link between this less developed area and the more complex cerebral cortex, which enables her to better express her feelings. In contrast, “Asking a teenage boy to talk about how he feels is a question guaranteed to make most boys uncomfortable,” Dr. Sax insists. “You’re asking him to make connections between two parts of his brain that don’t normally communicate” (30). Thus, a girl and a boy heading into adulthood do experience similar feelings. They simply cannot express them to the same level (29).
To add a foundation of concrete evidence to the theoretical side, Sax presents evidence for physical differences. Studies performed on newborns affirm that baby girls react more strongly to sounds of varying ranges than baby boys. Due to this increased sensitivity towards sound, what is to a girl loud shouting might be to a boy perfectly normal (Sax 17). Imagine, then, a teacher in a classroom. As Sax explains, sometimes it is not that a boy deliberately ignores his teachers; rather, he cannot hear them and their lessons (88). Similarly, studies of preteens indicate that boys tolerate sounds better than girls, as it takes ten times the level of volume to distract a boy from a task than a girl. The classroom environment then puts this to the test. Will the noise distract the students, or not? It could boil down to their genders (18). Sax also explains how boys’ and girls’ eyes respond with significant variance to colors. Ask for artistic creations, and girls will present drawings with beige, red, and a plethora of other colors that appeal to the cells that make up their eyes, known as P cells. Boys, conversely, will use just a few colors, probably black, blue, and other such shades to express themselves; these colors are well-adjusted to the M cells that populate a boy’s eyes (24). Interestingly enough, these same cells also affect what the drawings are likely to depict. Boys will draw something “happening,” while girls will draw still life images. P cells look at the objects; M cells look at the motion (22). These various gender differences are diverse and undeniable. Knowing this, the schools today face the challenge of finding a place for boys in the educational system that will cater to their innate learning styles and dissimilarities from girls, and provide them with a rich academic experience.
One of the most logical and visible signs of the benefits of such an education is the teachers’ ability to create a curriculum serving the boys’ specific intellectual strengths, and the positive response of the boys to their schoolwork. An article in The Guardian newspaper written by Rachel Williams quotes a researcher studying educational methods, Abigail James, who describes how English, a subject commonly shunned, intrigues boys in single-sex schools. The article insists that seeing young women surpass them in verbal skills leaves young men frustrated (Williams 1). Even Ms. Ginger Miller, an associate director of college counseling at the all-boys Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland agrees that young men struggle more with English. In a personal interview, she described how boys can discover information on a topic, but struggle to absorb it to the depth that girls do, thus turning comprehension into an exasperating competition they cannot win (Interview). At an all-boys’ school, this inferiority complex need not exist. Since they teach in a boys-only environment, teachers can use those readings and exercises that appeal to boys. James states as an example, “Boys in boys’ schools ‘loved’ to pen verse because they enjoy the inherent structure in poems’” (James, qtd. in Williams). The same sort of concept applies to boys’ overall learning styles. Miller discussed the need of her male students to physically engage in hands-on learning. Teachers cannot expect boys to sit still and quietly listen in the way that girls do (Interview). Thus, in an all-boys classroom, the teacher can create activities to address this physical energy in boys, whether they are races to write answers on the board or doing skits instead of papers. The teacher in an all-boys’ classroom can recognize the physical and mental differences in which a boy learns, and can adjust accordingly. For example, as is presented by Sax, perhaps he or she must speak at a volume that would drive girls crazy; however, there are no girls to bother. Consequently, the boys need not lose out to the intricacies of gender differences that influence co-ed classrooms (Sax 18). Single-sex classrooms give a new kind of freedom to teachers: the promise of implementing a curriculum built to reflect the boys’ innate learning differences.
In addition to the purely academic tasks, boys in single-sex schools also display strong interest in diversifying their pursuits outside of school and engaging in the classroom activities. In particular, boys educated in single-sex schools are more inclined to seek roles in the arts. As is asserted in Williams’ article, “Boys at single sex schools were said to be more likely to get involved in cultural and artistic activities that helped develop their emotional expressiveness, rather than feeling they had to conform to the ‘boy code’ of hiding their emotions to be a ‘real man’” (Williams 1). Ms. Miller also explained the more practical reasons boys at single-sex schools become involved in the arts – they take on the roles that girls often fill. She used the example of musicians in the orchestra; the seats must be filled with boys and boys alone (Interview). Thus, boys in single-sex schools have greater opportunity to take part in the arts; and, more importantly, eagerly do so, according to Miller. They are on the way to breaking free from the stereotypes that performance and design are for girls alone, and are immersing themselves in the rich cultural and emotional experiences that come with the arts. Their creative genius is unleashed in yet another way, thanks to the arts encouraged in a single-sex school.
Not only do they focus on newfound interests in enriching extracurriculars, boys in single-sex schools speak out, willingly expressing their opinions in the classroom setting, as well as their imaginations and creative talents. Miller indicated that having only boys in the room contributes to “tangent” conversations, sidelines stemming from the primary topic that perhaps would not come up with young women in the room. She presented the example of a discussion on hazing in the military; such a blunt discussion could very well have been restrained had female students been present, she asserted (Interview). In essence, the all-male classroom is more open, allowing for boys to express themselves more freely without the fear of offending female classmates. In addition, Ms. Miller noted that she has observed the tendency of girls to participate more garrulously in such conversations. Once the class removes girls, it is up to the boys to generate discussion – they are not overshadowed by their more talkative female counterparts (Interview). The boys’ classroom nurtures discussion and open expression, an experience that can never be quite the same in a co-educational situation. This freedom of expression applies not only to opinions and sharing, but also to creation and analytical processes. Dr. Sax delivers a detailed recount of an all-boys’ classroom studying the novel Lord of the Flies. As would be expected, the boys were assigned a project responding to the novel. Dr. Sax recalled once writing an essay about being in one of the character’s shoes – an exercise in emotions, which, as was discovered earlier, does not hold the same learning potential in boys as it does for girls. That being said, Sax was surprised to see that the boys had prepared maps of the island in the book. How would such an assignment benefit the boys? It certainly was against the norm for a book that is usually analyzed from a philosophical and standpoint. But, evidently, the norm was not the way to go for this novel:
I noticed that the boys were really involved in the assignment. Mr. Williams was building on these boys’ natural interests and their strength: spatial relations, mapmaking. He was keeping the assignment objective […]
And the skills these boys were learning are useful: carefully deconstructing a text, finding clues hundreds of pages apart, and using those clues to assemble a coherent picture. That sort of puzzle-solving is a skill that more of us could use. […] Analytical deconstruction of a text is at least as useful as being able to write an imaginative essay about “how you would feel in a given situation (Sax 110).
Thus, Mr. Williams’ boys, alone in their class, expressed the mental pictures and thoughts they had in a way specifically suited to their male learning style. This is the success one sees in the single-sex classroom, a window for expression that remains closed in a co-ed institution.
Ultimately, one of the most evident benefits of all-boys school, albeit perhaps a clichéd one, is the removal of age-old gender stereotypes and social expectations from the academic community. When asked about the benefits of single-sex education, Miller cited the absence of the opposite gender as a definite advantage. Boys cannot seek attention from girls when they are not present (Interview). Miller does not stand alone in her beliefs, either. Another interviewee, Mr. Danny Spelta, associate director of college counseling at a co-ed institution in Washington, D.C. named the Edmund Burke School, offered similar thoughts. His observations affirm that a female-free environment provides fewer distractions for boys (Interview). The lowered distraction appears to be a consistent feature of research into benefits of single-sex schools. Social liberation can even be tied back into the Ms. William’s article – “The absence of girls gives boys the chance to develop without pressure to conform to a stereotype” (Williams 1). Perhaps this is what makes the difference in classes taught by Steve O’Keefe at the Burke School. In an email interview, Mr. O’Keefe stated “Boys in same gender classes […] are less inclined to act out, interrupt, flirt, disrupt or show off. In same gender classes participants seem less afraid to be wrong and are more willing to take intellectual risks” (O’Keefe). Boys among boys do not have to worry about their image in the eyes of women. They can instead be concerned with their studies and developing their own opinions.
Having graduated from a single-sex school, I can attest to the validity of these statements. Though I am female, the general concept of this kind of schooling and the basic benefits still correspond – social and gender roles being a significant similarity. During high school I walked into class every day with nobody watching me but my female peers. During class, we focused on academic material, and in the hallways, joked around with one other. Teamwork, leadership, discussions, and studying monopolized our class time, not trying to attract the cute boy standing a few lockers away. Appearance merited only a passing thought, not much beyond the chance to display our favorite mismatched jewelry and scarves. Upon graduation, I enrolled at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, which is a male-dominated institution. Once school started, I began to notice myself changing. I suddenly cared surprisingly more about how I looked during the day, and became much more focused on my own femininity. My behavior began to shift to a “girlier” way of acting, the more stereotypical. At first, I attributed this to the joys of being out of “boot camp” and being allowed to express myself as an individual. However, reflecting upon the change, I believe it was influenced significantly by the presence of young men at the Academy, and my focus on building relationships with them and establishing my identity as a woman. Romance and feminism dominated my thoughts, not academics. I had fallen into the trap of distraction by the opposite sex – something I never experienced in my single-sex school. I am female, not male. Regardless, my experience attests to the influence of the opposite gender on one’s educational experience, and reinforces Williams’ ideas – removal of the opposite sex does make a difference in a classroom.
Even in light of these many positive aspects of single-sex education, there persist many threadbare arguments against such a system. However, upon inspection, these arguments prove invalid. Elena Silva comes from a D.C think tank that studies issues in education. Her article published through the Opposing Viewpoints database provides arguments against the establishment of single-sex schools. Frequently, Ms. Silva insists that single-sex education, in general, produces no noticeable benefits (Silva 1). This becomes hard to believe when one uncovers the information presented already regarding the differences in boys in single-sex schools relative to studies in the arts and English, the overall more open environment, and the liberation from social expectations and standards. Ms. Silva even weakens her own argument by citing a source that blatantly acknowledges the existence of single-sex schooling benefits. “One study by researcher Cornelious Riordan found that poor and minority students performed better academically in single-sex schools. However, Riordan acknowledges these students likely did better because single-sex schools have a greater academic orientation and focused curriculum” (2) Accidentally, Ms. Silva reaffirms one of the main criteria of single-sex schools in the midst of her complaints – single-sex schools allow for tailored curriculums that indeed give an advantage to their students. Ms. Silva also insists that there are few differences between the ways that girls and boys learn, but does not delve deeply into that argument (2). Her vague protestations stand feebly in front of Dr. Sax, who, beyond having a medical degree of his own, has evidently researched the topic heavily; multiple sources consulted during the research of this report cited his work. Ms. Silva focused also on the practical impacts of single-sex education – the cost of building new schools, the idea that discrimination lawsuits could follow, the need to get teachers, so on (Silva 3). If one were to use these arguments, then new schools should never be erected, regardless of the genders they serve. It costs too much to make new facilities, and expand educational horizons. Shall we revert back to the one-room schoolhouses of early America? Ms. Silva’s arguments are weak, and unable to stand against the logic of single-sex schools.
A struggle exists in today’s educational system. A struggle manifests in a young boy, different from his female counterparts. He is forced to be a piece in a puzzle that never fits quite right. He grows frustrated, he falls behind, he and his gifts are lost to an educational system that just does not work for him. This struggle necessitates a new environment – an environment of those who think like him, learn like him, and explore like him. Denial of the differences has no place in today’s contemporary school systems, and must be addressed. Single-sex schools do so. Their surroundings are open to emotional and creative release. Their classrooms are free from distractions and unfair societal expectations. Their curriculum is carefully crafted to give boys lessons they can truly learn. Today’s schools hold responsibility for teaching and empowering young boys, turning them into young men of wisdom and knowledge. Single-sex schools form the hands with which the world grips on to the future of boys.
"Interview with Ms. Ginger Miller." Telephone Interview. 15 and 18 Nov. 2013.
“Interview with Mr. Danny Spelta.” Telephone Interview. 19 Nov. 2013.
“Interview with Mr. Steve O’Keefe.” Email Interview. 20 Nov. 2013.
Sax, Leonard. Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. New York: Doubleday, 2005. Print.
Silva, Elena. "Single-Sex Schools Will Not Improve Education." Education. Ed. David Haugen and Susan Musser. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2009. Opposing Viewpoints. Rpt. from "Boys and Girls Are More Alike in School Than They Are Different." DelawareOnline.com. 2008. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind. New York: AMACOM, 2010. Print.
Williams, Rachel. "Single-Sex Schools Help Boys to Enjoy Arts, Says Study." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 19 Jan. 2010. Web. Nov. 2013.
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