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The only thing as complicated as boys and girls trying to figure each other out, is figuring out whether or not they want to attend school together. For parents who invest in independent education, helping their children make the right choice - if there is a right choice - is a daunting task. For many, sending kids to independent school is a commitment to giving them the best start possible in life, so finding the right fit, be it a co-ed or single-sex classroom, is key.
Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls, but what about at school? Opinions vary on whether segregating the sexes is the key to a better learning experience.
Supporters of the single-sex model say that, because studies show boys and girls learn differently, they should be in a school that caters to those needs. That said, co-ed enthusiasts explain that their environment better reflects the real world and, if done right, can offer a balance.
Sarah McMahon, admissions director at Lakefield College School, about 1 hours northeast of Toronto, stresses that, while "it's an individual decision," she's a fan of the co-ed approach.
"This is the reality of the world. You're going to be in an environment that's both male and female, and I think it's a healthy environment to grow up in," she explains. "The camaraderie that develops between the boys and girls is very special. In a single-sex school, you miss out on that."
Until 12 years ago, Lakefield was boys-only, but is now co-ed. Grade 11 student Kelly Bignell has been there since Grade 7, and some of her best friends are boys. "I can talk to my guy friends about anything," she says. "I cherish the friendships I've made here."
Socialization is one thing, but research shows boys and girls have unique requirements if they're to reach their full potential.
"Girls and boys really do learn differently," says Dona Matthews, an author and education psychologist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. "Girls are more likely than boys to want to learn co-operatively and collaboratively. Boys tend to be more competitive and to get something good from being competitive."
Eleanor Moore, of The Linden School for girls in Toronto, says people ask a lot of the co-ed classroom because "it's hard to be all things to all people."
Until recently, much of the research highlighted the challenges faced by girls. Many felt intimidated during adolescence; not only were their voices being lost in the co-ed classroom, they were missing out on developing leadership, math, science and technology skills. The focus has shifted, however, to how co-ed classrooms are failing boys.
Statistics released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2001 showed girls significantly outscored boys in reading in all 32 countries tested. In Canada, boys lagged more than 30 points behind girls.
And, with Ontario's province-wide tests also showing that boys are suffering, many parents are looking for options that will focus on their sons' needs.
Traditional classrooms are more female-friendly, says Peter Jackson, administrator at Saint John's School of Alberta, a boys-only facility outside Edmonton. Boys aren't programmed to sit quietly for long periods and focus on one task. They're easily distracted, they're loud and, especially in early adolescence, "they're brimming over with energy- - if you could harness it, you could power a city," he says.
"Boys are having a much harder time," acknowledges Matthews, who, in her private psychology practice, sees a lot of smart little boys who are identified as having behaviour problems, when really they're just curious children.
As a result, Saint John's structures its schedule to respond to boys' needs. "We have smaller classes and we're able to work out that energy," Jackson says. "The day is broken so they're not just sitting at a desk." Instead, they're doing chores, playing sports and participating in the school's Outdoor Adventure Program, which includes expeditions to explore Canada's geography and history.
At Linden, a women-centred approach focuses on women's stories and takes into account girls' personalities. "We know that girls are very much socially and psychologically rooted in relationships." Moore says. "If girls view relationships as key, then it's important in teaching."
Arranging the the Linden science lab in an hour-glass shape encourages discussions, and students also call teachers by their first names, treating them as guides, or comrades, rather than all-knowing beings. This holistic approach allows girls to take responsibility for their education and develop independence.
It also puts the focus on academics, says Moore, who, like Jackson, believes students are less distracted in a single-sex school.
"I think for the most part they're much freer in nature," she explains."They don't have to put being cool before learning."
Kimberley Noble says she's relieved her 13-year-old daughter Lucy doesn't have to deal with the peer pressure of the co-ed classroom, where some girls are pushed to grow up too soon or act a certain way to impress boys.
"I would much rather Lucy go out into the world of relationships as a really strong fully formed person and I think that's what she's getting where she is," says Noble. "The all-girls environment gives them a lot of freedom to look at who they are and what they want to be in the world."
While single-sex classrooms do help girls maintain confidence and keep their options open when it comes to careers and academics, says Matthews, separating the girls from the boys isn't the only answer. "When there's been qualitative study done of single-sex environments in which girls are shown to do better, and when people learn about what's going on there and apply that to co-ed environments, you get even better things going on.
"Rather than segregate, it's always better to figure out how to diversify the classroom," she suggests.
Kelly Bignell agrees, emphasizing that she enjoys the well-rounded experience her co-ed school offers: "I think you get so many more different views, especially in a classroom discussion."
While the single-sex/co-ed question raises plenty of issues for parents and students to consider, no one answer is right or wrong. "It's very much an individual differences phenomenon," Matthews says. "For some girls and some boys the single-sex environment is absolutely right, for some it's absolutely wrong."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Co-ed versus single-sex classroom resources
ALL GIRLS: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters by Karen Stabiner (Riverhead Books)
BOYS AND GIRLS LEARN DIFFERENTLY: A Guide for Teachers and Parents by Michael Gurian (Wiley)
BOYS THEMSELVES: A Return to Single Sex Education by Michael Ruhlman (Henry Holt)
FAILING AT FAIRNESS: How Our Schools Cheat Girls by Myra Sadker and David Sadker (Touchstone Books)
SEPARATE SEXES, SEPARATE SCHOOLS: A Pro/Con Issue by Barbara C. Cruz (Enslow Publishers)
Our kids features comprehensive lists of all boys schools and all girls schools.
The National Association for Single Sex Public Education chronicles a variety of studies promoting single-sex classrooms. It also documents how boys' and girls' brains develop differently, leading to their unique needs in the classroom.
Two years ago, the Australian Council for Education Research released the study "Boys in School and Society."
Dona Matthews is an author and education psychologist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. View her essays on education at this site.