“Remember girls, you are not going home to be selfish butterflies of fashion.”
—Anne Thomson, Lady Principal of Bishop Strachan School, 1872-1875
There are lots of arguments for and against single-gender schools, though not all of them are credible, just as not all of them are based in direct experience. Some will suggest that girls learn differently than boys, or that it’s easier to study without the distraction of boys. Perhaps. Those are easy things to say, though can be more difficult to demonstrate objectively. To varying degrees, they also presume that all boys and all girls think and learn alike, which of course isn’t true. Everybody is different, with a different set of needs. We all thrive in some settings, and struggle in others.
Ultimately, when choosing between a coed school or an all girls school, the most important factor is personal and based in an understanding of the needs and personality of the individual student. For some students, challenges are a good thing, inspiring the confidence to rise above them. Others benefit from more support and a more collaborative approach. Which, of course, is equally true for both girls and boys.
That said, traditional educational environments aren’t a level playing field, and they can present some challenges for the girls that they don’t for the boys. As a result, girls typically have more to gain from a single-gender environment than boys.
While boys’ schools have a longer tradition in Canada, the things that single-gender schools offer today, in some fundamental ways, reflect the academic tradition that arose within the girls’ institutions. Boarding schools, in particular, have provided leadership in addressing the challenges associated with developing and supporting a diverse student population, and providing students with the skills they'll need for success after graduation.
The oldest independent JK to Grade 12 girls’ boarding school in Canada is Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, founded in 1867. From the beginning, the school was lead by a series of forthright women who had lived at the boundaries of social and intellectual life, and experience that they brought to their role as educators. In the 1870s, Mrs. Anne Thomson, then principal of the school, addressed the students at convocation saying “Remember girls, you are not going home to be selfish butterflies of fashion. The Bishop Strachan School has been endeavoring to fit you to become useful and courageous women. I believe you will yet see our universities open to women. Work out your freedom, girls! Knowledge is now no more a fountain seal’d; drink deep!”
Thomson’s views were revolutionary for the time, and they found a welcome home at Bishop Strachan. She became one of a long line of headmistresses who would define the life of the school as challenging and progressive, a place where girls and women would continue to work out their freedom, and drink deep, just as Thomson hoped they might. She travelled to schools in England and the US seeking strategies and techniques to modernize the school’s curriculum. She began a program of financial aid, the first of its kind in Canada, offering bursaries and scholarships to broaden the student base. She worked to create a community with a reputation of achievement, not privilege. During her time, the school sent more students to university than ever before, this at a time when very few women went to university at all.
It was through that kind of forthright leadership that girls’ schools departed most significantly from what was happening elsewhere. While all-boys schools could be brutal in the pursuit of conformity, the girls’ institutions were quietly empowering girls to do more, and to demand more of society as well as themselves. The women who taught at girls’ schools were modern and accomplished, and they imparted the values of education. They lead by example, providing a window onto a world of possibility.
While there have been significant advances in the rights of women through the 20th century, traditional gender roles nevertheless are often unwittingly reinforced in academic and extracurricular settings. Science and technology are more likely to be promoted to boys than to girls; English and the arts are more likely to be promoted to girls than to boys. Athletics, the prom, and many other aspects of student life can reinforce traditional roles and expectations.
Christina Brasco is a scientist, a graduate of Yale University and now a member of GE’s aviation team. There she develops data solutions and applications, and then works with engineers to implement them. Her experience of being a woman participating in fields that are still predominantly male has led her to take part in mentorship programs, such as Girls Who Code, in order to motivate young women to consider careers in math and science. “The misconception that boys are better at math and science is something many girls have ingrained in their brains from a very young age. As a result, fewer girls elect to take advanced math and science subjects in middle and high school.” She continues:
“Young women who do pursue these subjects often find themselves isolated as one of a very small number of girls in a class, making connecting with their classmates more challenging. Finally, those who pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs after graduation end up in fields that are even more overwhelmingly dominated by men. Overall, girls and women are filtered out of STEM classes and fields in the classroom and the workplace.”
That tendency to skew expectations based on gender is difficult to avoid, both within the classroom and in the larger community of the school. Jessi Klein, head writer for Inside Amy Schumer, has said that in her childhood, as now, “the idea of what it means to be a girl [is that] you’re supposed to be this other. You think of ‘female’ as not the primary voice.” That perception can be reinforced, albeit unwittingly and unintentionally, by the daily progress of school life. When the whole school attends a boy’s football playoff game, for example, there is an implication that the boys’ team is the real team, one to which the girls’ team is secondary and ancillary. Absent from boys, girls perceive new areas of opportunity, something that is encouraged by the presence of female mentors and role models. It’s not about isolation, it's about providing a space for a greater freedom of interest, engagement, and identity.
That’s what boys’ schools intend as well. Absent from girls, boys perceive new areas of opportunity, such as in the arts, or other areas of student engagement that, in co-ed schools, can unwittingly encourage gender segregation and performance expectations. In all-boys schools, students are more likely to engage in the arts and the social sciences, and feel less pressure to adopt/display stereotypically male behaviors.
Most importantly, boys’ schools can allow specific kinds of discussion that, in other settings, boys may not be readily exposed to or, when they are, may feel an acute pressure to avoid. In addition to teaching English and Drama, Laurie Fraser administers aspects of the Character Project. The goal of the project is partially to instill authority and leadership, though there are more foundational goals as well. “It’s really hard to act in the world with kindness and generosity when you don’t feel good on the inside,” says Fraser. “We have conversations in a series of workshops about character strengths and the pillars of well-being, including positive emotions, engagement, relationships, finding meaning and having a sense of accomplishment in life.”
The vast majority of Canadian students are enrolled in co-ed schools, just as the vast majority of Canadian adults graduated from co-ed schools. The co-ed experience is thought of as the norm, and certainly, in terms of numbers, it is.
The primary advantage of a co-ed learning environment is social. “What matters most about school is social life,” says Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. When it comes to social development, co-ed schools in some ways have the upper hand. “There is a positive dimension in terms of the large number of opportunities for relating to each other across gender lines.” Gaztambide-Fernández adds that “These students confront gender on a daily basis, so they're able to develop more nuanced strategies for dealing with the opposite sex—strategies that will be useful later on in life.”
In a coeducational learning environment, students are exposed to both male and female role models. They are also more likely to encounter a greater range of leadership styles, values and lifestyles. A 2006 study, “Perceptions and Attitudes of Students toward their Academic and Social Experiences in Canadian High Schools,” reported that they “offer students the opportunity to exchange a broad range of opinions and viewpoints with their peers since the schools comprise a mixed-gender student body.”
A benefit of coed schooling is that it reflects the environment that exists beyond the school walls as well as the subsequent environments—post-secondary institutions and professional life—that students will ultimately move into. That said, the same argument—that co-ed schooling reflects society at large—is also used in favour of single-gender schooling. Ultimately, the demeanor, talent, and social aptitude of the student will, and should, play a large role in determining the right educational environment.
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