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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