Teaching Boys and Girls Separately

Article: Weil, E. (2008). “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately.” NY Times. Visited on 2 March 2008


The article explores the potential impact that differences in emotional and/or cognitive development in boys and girls have on a child’s ability to learn.  In order to address these inherent difference and subsequently the ‘chronic achievement gap between richer and poorer students and between white and minority students’, one school of thought promotes gender segregation in schools. The most outspoken proponent of this solution and the main focus of this article is Leonard Sax, a former family physician with a Ph.D. in psychology.

According to Sax, the basis for the need to separate boys and girls is biological as opposed to social. He sites psychological as well as neurobiological studies which utilize brain scan technology. The need to segregate boys and girls in the classroom is rooted, according to Sax, in biological differences such as:

•     boys do not hear nor smell as well as girls

•     boys and girls respond differently to different shades of light

•     boys are more apt than girls to see action

•     boys are not as capable as girls of recognizing subtleties in color and texture

•     baby boys are drawn to shapes while baby girls are drawn to faces

•     boys solve maze puzzles using the hippocampus while girls use the cerebral cortex

•     boys covet risk while girls shy away

•     boys are approximately 1 year behind girls in their emotional/cognitive development. As a result, teaching a 6 yr old boy to read is equivalent of teaching a 5 year old girl.

Theses differences need to be taken into account in order to determine an effective education plan.

‘You need to get them (boys) 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 your 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 girls, Chadwell prescribes a focus on “the connections girls have with (a) 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” — Chadwell, one of Sax’s disciples (pg 5)
The problem (as I see it) is that the differentiation between girls and boys is oversimplified here.  Gender is a continuum not a dichotomy. Additionally, there are many factors which determine the success of a student. Proper funding, resources, and parent involvement would be a good start. I am horrified by the by Sax’s oversimplification of the matter—I must have some unidentified P-Prim concerning categorization of people or gender differences. I think that reaction may come from the example of implementation given in the article where the girls are taught about hydrophilic/hydrophobic substances by examining oil and water. The teacher likens what the girls saw in the classroom to the grease the girls will find in the kitchen sink when they are washing dishes after their mother makes fried chicken (Major gut reaction).

Others believe that there is a social basis for this segregation. The social reasoning was originally based on ‘girl’s plummeting self esteem during puberty and how girls are subtly discouraged from careers in math and science’. The growing crisis in the education of young boys has caused the focus of attention to recently shift from boys to girls. Regardless of biological or social reasoning, the ACLU strongly opposes all single sex education.

Martha Denckla, the director of the developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland, holds that the slower development of motor skills in boys needs to be taken into account when dealing with differences in cognitive development between boys and girls. The difference in ability to prepare the mouth to form words could impact a boy’s speed of response thereby making it seem that boys are developing more slowly than girls.

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health found that total cerebral volume peaks at 10.5 years in girls, 4 years earlier than in boys and that cortical and sub-cortical gray matter trajectories peak 1-2 yrs earlier in girls than boys but there is not a direct correlation between brain size and functional advantage. The chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of N.I.M.H. believes that gender is a crude tool for sorting minds and that “There are just too many exceptions to the rule”

Sax has built his argument mainly on compelling stories that appeal to a population of parents and educators looking for a simple answer. Upon closer examination, some of research which Sax cites to support his ideology is questionable (small study groups, results that are inconclusive within standard deviation).

The article also offers several examples of public schools that have shifted to the single sex classroom paradigm are presented in this article.

•  Foley Intermediate — In its 3rd year of offering single sex class rooms there was an 87% voluntary enrollment in the program. The classrooms displayed a decreased number of discipline problems, more parental support, and better scores in writing, reading and math. (The principle recognizes that the data is skewed because her highest performing teachers and most motivated students are involved in the program)

•  Excellence Charter (Brooklyn) — concurrently imposed serious discipline and increased parent involvement.

•  Thurgood Marshall Elementary (Seattle) — 2001, after the first year in a single-sex format, the percentage of boys meeting the states academic standards rose from 10 % to 35% in math and from 10% to 53% in reading and writing. Wright (the principle) claims that it is easier to give students a positive sense of themselves as students in the single-sex setting.

•  Philadelphia school district — Wright moved to the Philidelphia school district after Seattle in order to work on that districts single-sex programs and was met with modest results.

•  Jefferson Leadership Academies (Long Beach) — didn’t see results that justified putting a strain on her resources. It was difficult to make sure that each student not only got the classes that they required but that they were also in the proper gender class.

•  The Young Women’s Leadership School (Harlem) — Provides girls a place to learn in a desexualized environment.

In 2005, the US dept. of Education, along with the American Institute for Research attempted to quantify the effects of single sex education. The analysis did not find conclusive evidence to support or refute the efficacy of single sex education. This is attributed to the fact that there are many variables which contribute to the success of a school.

Note on User Group: Based on the potential differences in cognitive development outlined in this article, gender should be considered when defining the user groups/ personas. While these differences may not require separation of genders in order to successfully acquire knowledge, product design should take these differences into account and attempt to meet both sets of needs.

Note on Conceptual Design: The differences in what motivates women and men should be taken into account in the conceptual design. A product, if catering to both men and women, should meet the need of men to establish social order as well as the need of women to nurture her social network.

Note on Interaction Design: If it is true that girls hear better than boys, the designer should consider this difference when using sound cues in their product. If it is true that boys tend to see action more than girls, the designer should take this difference into account when considering how many moving parts the product has (flash animation etc) (Both of these examples apply to interface design as well).

Note on Interface Design: Since girls are generally able to differentiate between subtleties in color and texture better than boys can, the designer should consider this difference when determining the color palette of a product.

  1 comment for “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately

  1. April 29, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    This is a very good summary and evaluation. I would add that as product designers, we want to develop products that help users succeed and minimize errors. We can surround the product with support structures (scaffoldings) that help the user succeed despite difficulties due to background knowledge or memory or perception… These support structures have to be customized to each user group—differently for girls then for boys. OR we can teach users how to overcome problems—”teach them how to fish…” The last approach takes longer and generates more user errors at the start, but is more “desired” in the long run. One of the problems of separating boys and girls (not just that it is bad for boys) is that we will take away the opportunity for girls (and boys) to learn how to survive in the integrated world. So while in the short run, separating boys and girls might seem like a good idea—girls learn better—in the long run, we might be doing the a disservice…

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