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How single-sex schools let kids flourish

A more in depth look at the learning differences between boys and girls

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Everyone was stunnedwell, almost everyone. The parents, while delighted, were still a little surprised. The kids, though thrilled, had to pinch themselves. The only audience members who remained unfazed were the teachers.

The girls' robotics team from The Sacred Heart School of Montreal had taken bronze in a 21-team competition. The girls, always winners in the eyes of their parents, now were winners in the eyes of the scientific world - and in robotics, no less.

Robotics "isn't that the realm of geeky guys? Shakespeare, that's more a girl-thing. Isn't it?"

"I get angry when people say girls are better at literature and boys are better at maths," says Dr. Leonard Sax, a Poolesville, Maryland doctor and author of Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences (Doubleday). "Boys and girls can learn anything if they are taught correctly, but what is correct for one is not correct for the other."

And there's the rub. An increasing amount of research suggests boys' and girls' anatomical differences extend beyond the obvious bits of plumbing; it points to dramatic divergences in basic hardwiring. Simply put, their brains are different.

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then boys are from Pluto and girls are from Neptune. To most parents, this revelation is not earth-shattering. Anyone who has ever watched a young girl painstakingly paint pictures of posies only to have her brother turn the paper into an airplane knows the gender gap can emerge fairly early. So what?

Here's what. As all of this brain science trickles down from laboratories all over the world (studies have been conducted in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the United States) to high-minded academics and then to educators, the searing question is raised: How do we best teach our kids?

The answer requires parents and educators to translate the complex language of science into basic educational tenets. Some come to a simple solution: Separate boys and girls into single-sex classrooms. Others interpret the science somewhat differently to pronounce a "definite maybe" on the issue of sexual segregation.

"It depends," says Dr. JoAnn Deak, an Ohio-based psychologist and author of Girls will be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters. "There is no recipe for teaching because what we know for certain is that, while boys and girls are definitely different, about 20 percent of boys will have a brain more like a girl's and about 20 percent of girls will have a brain more like a boy's."

For parents, that means choosing between single-sex and coed schools isn't just a matter of deciding if all of this brain science is believable. It means knowing your child better than he knows himself.

Tom Stevens, director of admissions at Royal St. George's College (for boys) in Toronto, previously taught at an all-girls school and knows he has to tailor his classes to suit his students.

"My guys learn best by doing. They're not auditory learners at all," he says. "They also need to be outside, to be moving, to blow off steam so we build that into the school program with activities during lunch-time and phys-ed right through Grade 10."

Stevens has adopted a teaching style that would be considered radical by traditional coed standards. His formula calls for only 20 minutes of core lesson, followed by active learning at the board, an educational game and time at the laptop. ("Laptops are great for boys," he says. "Paper and pen makes them self-conscious and antsy.")

The formula works. Stevens' 'guys' are content, with few discipline problems, and most are making the grade.

"I used to see report cards that said," Johnny lacks focus and needs to settle down," Stevens says. "I always knew that the report was written by a female teacher who simply didn't understand Johnny's needs. Most of our boys have struggled against the restraints put upon them (in coed classes). In most schools, if you can sit quietly, hands folded, focused, you'll do well. That doesn't work for most boys."

Nor would the loud, rapid-fire, animated style of Stevens' class work for a lot of girls. (In fact, according to Leonard Sax, that aggressive approach causes blood pressure to drop and feelings of anxiety in most - not all - girls.)

What does work, says all-girl educator and Sacred Heart School headmistress Elaine Brooks, is dialogue, and lots of it. "Our girls need connection and the best way to get through to them is with a narrative approach." In other words, they learn by sitting and talking, a fate worse than death to some boys.

Rob Kiddell, junior school principal, and Clare Tanner, Grade 5 teacher, of Glenlyon Norfolk School in Victoria, British Columbia (a coed school that separates sexes for class time), agree. "Our girls make the learning connection verbally and emotionally," says Kiddell. "Our boys learn by doing. They need to touch and engage." "I think of the girls as onions, with many emotional layers," says Tanner." And the boys as constantly moving tumbleweeds," adds Kiddell.

Onions and tumbleweeds. Venus and Mars. Whatever the analogy, Sax and Deak would say the oppositional force of the male-versus-female learning style owes everything to neuroanatomy. From the cerebral cortex to the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, brain mapping reveals vast differences.

For instance, by the time girls reach puberty, emotional activity has been rerouted from the amygdala to the cerebral cortex, where language abilities lie. This lets girls explain their feelings (often at great length), a skill difficult for most boys, whose emotions stay lodged in the amygdala.

So, asking a class what was going through Hamlet's head as he lay dying would probably work - for a class of girls. Not so for boys. Instead, one teacher asked his boys to draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies, a task requiring them to use their hippocampus (the seat of navigation and numbers), an area of the brain much more developed in males.

Similarly, brain imaging reveals girls solve math equations using their cerebral cortex while boys decipher math problems in the hippocampus. Translation: "Girls respond best when you relate a mathematic equation to the real world," Sax says. "Boys tend to be interested in numbers for the sake of numbers alone."

And further, while girls are bilateral thinkers, boys are unilateral; the corpus collosum (which connects the two hemispheres of the brain) is much denser with dendrites in females. "The boys will shout out an answer quickly while the girls, using both sides of the brain, ponder longer," Deak says. "They're still processing all the various permutations." And since girls hear better than boys (due to differences in inner ear development), the boys really do shout, at least by female standards.

"I went to university with a bunch of women who had gone to all-girls schools. Every one of them became gob-smacked in class with men." This is the testimonial of one proponent of coeducation classes. Her observation isn't scientific, rather she voices an intuitive fear: Brain science aside, girls and boys must eventually learn to relate. If separated, will the sexes become estranged?

For many parents of children in sex-segregated schools, timing is everything. Montreal native Penny Gruvellier transferred her daughter out of a coed school and into The Sacred Heart School when she found her adolescent spending more time preparing for face-time with the boys than for class work. It had as much to do with hormones as brain science.

"She was so focused on her looks and so distracted by what the boys were saying about her," Gruvellier says. "Knowing my daughter and her personality, I was worried it was one of the things that could and would affect her learning through high school."

Julie Gruvellier, 13, agrees that being in class with boys was titillating, but it was also worrisome. "I had trouble concentrating because the boys would be fooling around," she says. "And I was kind of scared to ask questions because I was worried that they might laugh at me."

Preoccupation with looks and image is a normal part of adolescence, but when it leads to gender-role stereotyping, experts call it "gender-role intensification." Advocates of sex-segregated education say it's a byproduct of coed schooling and arises when pubescent girls attempt to appear more girlish for the opposite sex, while hormonal boys try to act macho for the sake of the girls. Separate them, they say, and both sexes are free to explore a wider range of behaviours. Boys will try drama, for example, and girls will experiment with robotics.

Gender-role intensification, brain mapping, hormones "it's a lot to consider. But at the end of the day, Rob Kiddell points out, kids are all individuals. "Brain science is of great use, but it also worries me. It can be interpreted too narrowly and ends up limiting instead of enhancing. I think all teachers, whether they teach in a single-sex or coed school, realize that boys and girls are different. The brain science helps us illuminate just how they're different, but you've still got to filter that knowledge through what you're seeing in the classroom. You've still got to address the individual needs of each kid."

But, Kiddell admits, addressing those needs may be somewhat easier in a single-sex class. Sacred Heart's Elaine Brooks agrees. "Because there are some similarities within a class, you have the luxury of spending more time encouraging individual pursuits: academic interests that might be outside traditional comfort zones." Her medal-winning girls' robotics team is all the proof she needs.

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List of private schools


Toronto, Ontario — Located in the heart of Toronto, Upper Canada College is the oldest independent boys' school in Ontario. Our IB graduates are highly regarded by top universities and post-secondary institutions worldwide. View School Profile.

  • High-achieving, all-round boys
  • Challenging but rewarding IB program
  • First rate academics, athletics and arts
  • 19 different sports and 65+ clubs
  • Boutique urban boarding program
SK to 12 (Boys)
Liberal Arts, International Baccalaureate
$35,000 to $68,450
Avg. Class:
20 to 25
Upper Canada College 35000 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Boys

Toronto, Ontario — Our vision: Encourage life-long Georgians ready to use their scholarship, compassion, conscience and courage to make a difference. Our mission: To challenge and inspire each boy to become the best version of himself. View School Profile.

  • 100% university placement
  • Boy-centric education
  • Computer Engineering & Entrepreneurship programs
  • AP Capstone school
  • Extensive athletic program
3 to 12 (Boys)
Avg. Class:
Royal St. George's College 34500 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys

Toronto, Ontario — Crescent School is a Toronto independent day school for boys in Grades 3 to 12. Our relational learning environment develops students' characters through academics, arts, athletics, business, outreach and robotics. View School Profile.

  • Emphasis on leadership and character education
  • Strong alumni community
  • Generous financial aid
  • Enhanced service & mentoring opportunities
  • World champion robotics team and technology courses
3 to 12 (Boys)
Avg. Class:
15 to 20
Crescent School 36090 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Wellandport, Ontario
  • 5 to 12 Boys
  • $58,300 to $62,300

Robert Land Academy, established in 1978, is a private military-inspired boarding school (Gr 5-12) helping boys to experience validation, realize their potential and gain admission to post-secondary programs.

  • Boarding
  • Traditional
Robert Land Academy 58300 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    York Mills Road/Don Mills Road
  • JK to 8 Boys
  • $19,000 to $36,000

We value partnership with parents, creating a genuinely warm and friendly community. We raise the academic bar on academic excellence, and expectations of character, helping the boys become the best that they can be.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
Northmount School 19000 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Dufferin Avenue/401 Highway
  • JK to 8 Boys
  • $31,200

The Sterling Hall School is a leading independent school for boys, JK to Grade 8. We understand how boys learn best and we support each boy in his learning journey.

  • Day
  • Progressive
The Sterling Hall School 31200 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boys
  • Calgary, Alberta
    17th Ave SW/Richmond Road SW
  • K to 12 Coed/Boys/Girls
  • $8,000 to $15,000

In addition to academics, our focus on mentorship, hands-on learning in and outside the classroom, and character development, will allow our students to thrive academically and personally as they discover who they are.

  • Day
  • Progressive
North Point School For Boys 8000 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Day Day Coed Boys Girls
  • Aurora, Ontario
    St. John's Sideroad/Yonge Street
  • 5 to 12 Boys
  • $38,405 to $71,495

St. Andrew's College offers programs from grades 5 to 12 in Aurora. Its average class size is 17 students.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
St. Andrew's College 38405 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Boys
  • Oakville, Ontario
  • JK to 8 Boys
  • $23,550 to $27,800

We know boys have different learning styles. Research shows that boys learn differently and socialize in their own distinct ways. We also know through research that boys thrive in an all-boys’ learning environment.

  • Day
  • Traditional
Linbrook School 23550 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boys
  • Montreal, Quebec
  • 7 to 11 Boys
  • $9,950

In the Ignatian spirit of care and concern for the individual, Loyola strives to develop a diverse and unique student experience while forming global-minded Men for Others.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
Loyola High School 9950 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Bathurst St./St. Clair West
  • 7 to 12 Boys
  • $21,500

Canada’s only independent, Catholic school for boys in Grades 7-12, taught in the Basilian tradition of forming the mind, body, and soul. Since 1852, we have educated students in goodness, discipline, and knowledge.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
St. Michael's College School 21500 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Westmount, Quebec
  • K to 11 Boys
  • $20,850 to $26,990

Selwyn House School provides a well-rounded education of exceptional depth and scope for boys from Kindergarten to Grade 11. It is located in Westmount, Quebec.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
Selwyn House School 20850 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Shuter Street/Bond Street
  • 3 to 12 Boys
  • $7,500

St. Michael’s Choir School was founded in 1937 and provides sacred music for services at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica. Located in downtown Toronto, SMCS is an all boys school from grades 3 through 12.

  • Day
  • Traditional
St. Michael's Choir School 7500 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Duplex Ave/St Clements Ave
  • PS to 2 Coed/Boys
  • $10,000 to $21,075

St. Clement's Early Learning School 70 St. Clements Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4R 1H2 At SCELS we believe giving children an early education will build a solid foundation to prepare them for their next school setting.

  • Day
  • Progressive
St. Clement's Early Learning School 10000 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary Day Day Coed Boys
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • JK to 12 Boys/Girls/Coed
  • $13,290 to $18,620

With a global network of schools around the world, a rich and proud history, and a strong and unique set of core values, Sacred Heart offers not just an education but an experience that is unparalleled in Nova Scotia.

  • Day
  • Traditional
Sacred Heart School of Halifax 13290 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Day Day Boys Girls Coed

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