Coed classrooms versus single-sex classrooms

The great debate over whether boys and girls thrive together or separately

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For parents who invest in independent education, helping their children make the right choice—if there is a right choiceis a daunting task. For many, sending kids to independent school is a commitment to giving them the best start, so finding the right fit, be it a coed or single-sex classroom, is key. But 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. Given gender stereotypes and differences between the sexes, the question has yet to be settled: do girls and boys learn better together or separately?

A case for coed schools

Coed 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 one hour northeast of Toronto, Ontario 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 coed. 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."

David Robertson, headmaster at Shawnigan Lake School, a coed boarding high school in Shawnigan Lake, BC, says boys and girls ultimately have a more enriching educational experience when they get to learn together. "There's a cross-pollination that goes on in the academic environment," Robertson says. "The diligence and attentiveness of girls positively affects boys, while the liveliness of boys inspires girls. They learn from and are inspired by each other."

Coed schools better prepare girls and boys for post-secondary school and employment by providing ongoing opportunities to work together, he adds. "They learn to work together productively, which is what they will be expected to do throughout their life. So there is good preparation happening for university and beyond."

Since co-education is the norm in North American public schools, most of the research in the field has focused on the efficacy of single-sex education. Single-Sex Education: What Does Research Tell Us?, a 2010 review of several studies on single-sex education in English-speaking countries, found little consensus on whether the option is actually advantageous to girls' and boys' academic achievement.

A case for single-sex schools

Additional research shows boys and girls have unique requirements if they're to reach their full potential. 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 and single-sex schools consider these differences to create customized programs that optimize success.

"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."

"In coed schools, boys tend to populate the lower end of the academic spectrum," says Brad Adams, executive director of the International Boys' Schools Coalition. "Boys' schools specialize in designing curriculum that hooks boys into learning."

At boys' schools, boys are more engaged in learning without being in a gender pressure cooker, Adams adds.

"They have a longer time to be boys and to explore various interests, for example, in the arts, without getting straitjacketed into some stereotypical gender role, such as the jock," he explains.

The main strength of all-boys and all-girls schools is reflected in the 2008 study Single-Sex Schooling and Academic Attainment at School and Through the Lifecourse. The study found that the option helps students succeed in gender-atypical subjects; for example, girls will perform better in math and science, and boys will do better in English and modern languages.

For girls, much of the benefit lies in developing their personhood in an environment free of persistent traditional gender stereotypes that can hold women back.

"In many ways, gender dynamics have not changed, and in most of the world, public life is still the domain of men, and domestic life that of women," says Burch Ford, president of the U.S.-based National Coalition of Girls' Schools (NCGS). "Girls' schools provide not only a physical but a psychological space where that part of our culture is left at the door, and girls have the freedom to explore who they are and who they want to become.”

Girls who attend single-sex schools outscore their coed counterparts on the SAT by an average of 28 to 43 points, and nearly 100% of girls' school graduates go on to college, according to the NCGS.

"In girls' schools, there is no social consequence for speaking out, challenging ideas and being yourself, which allows girls to develop the kind of critical- and creative-thinking skills that are essential in the 21st-century workforce," Ford says.

Eleanor Moore, of The Linden School for girls, in Toronto,  Ontario, says people ask a lot of the coed classroom because "it's hard to be all things to all people."

For some common arguments on both sides, see the table below.

Benefits of single-sex vs. coed schools


Common arguments for single sex

Common arguments for coed

Pedagogical arguments

  • School can better tailor lessons and curriculum to students.
  • It’s hard to be all things to all people. Boys and girls learn differently and single-sex schools are able to accommodate these differences without compromise. Many of the supposed differences in ability between boys and girls result from subjects not being taught to their respective learning style. 
  • In the areas boys and girls often do well in—whether it's in an intellectual, physical, or behavioural domain—they aren’t held back by the other gender. In areas they might struggle in, they aren’t overshadowed by the other gender or boxed into narrow gender stereotypes. 
  • The differences between boys’ and girls’ learning styles are overstated.
  • Research shows that for up to 80% of students—both boys and girls—their brains are similar enough that they respond to the same teaching style. 
  • Academics are enriched when boys and girls are exposed to each other’s thinking and experiences in the classroom. 
  • Having boys and girls in the classroom creates balance, which benefits both. Where boys excel, they raise the standard for girls, and vice versa. Diversity allows students to stretch and challenge each other. 

Developmental arguments

  • Students are less fettered in developing their unique selves.
  • In adolescence, kids can be more themselves without sexual competition. 
  • Kids can try different things
    and explore unique interests and skills without the influence of social expectations stemming from gender roles. 
  • Without the distraction of mating rituals, students tend to be more focused on academics and extracurriculars—areas that pay higher dividends later in life. Kids don’t have to put being cool before learning. 
  • Cohorts tend to form more naturally without adolescent concerns about cliques and social status. The camaraderie that develops can be special. 
  • Going to a single-sex school doesn’t preclude students from interacting with the opposite sex, whether through extracurriculars or outside of school. By the time kids go out into the world of relationships, they are strong and fully formed individuals. 
  • Students have more opportunity to develop their social selves.
  • As Aristotle said, humans are social animals. Today that means living in a coed world. Single-sex schools artificially shelter kids from this reality. 
  • Students learn to be tolerant of people who are different than them and to treat each other with respect. Students are exposed to both male and female role models. 
  • Especially in the older grades, many students prize their friendships with the other sex. This can take students out of their comfort zones and make them see the world differently. 
  • School and work aside, coed schools offer students more chances to build comfort talking and interacting with the other sex. 


Shifting dynamics and emphasis on learning styles

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, Alberta. 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 energyif 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 coed 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/coed 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."

Coed vs. single sex questions to consider

According to the experts, up to 80% of boys and 80% of girls have brains similar enough that they will respond to the same learning style. But what about the 20% that differs?

As a parent, you probably have a gut feeling that your little girl or boy doesn’t quite fit the mould. Test those instincts against the following questions, informed by the observations of teacher Tom Stevens (who has taught both sexes):

DOES YOUR CHILD WORK BEST COLLABORATIVELY, OR DOES HE LIKE TO COMPETE? Girls tend to learn best when there is co-operation; boys like to be pitted against each other.

IS YOUR CHILD A BORN READER OR DOES SHE GRAVITATE MORE TO PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES? Generally, boys need encouragement to sit quietly with a book.

DOES YOUR CHILD LEARN BEST BY HEARING OR SEEING OR BY DOING? While girls tend to learn from a spoken lesson, boys seem to be more experiential.

DOES YOUR CHILD SHOW AFFECTION BY CUDDLING OR BY PLAY-FIGHTING? Teachers like Stevens observe that while most girls hug and kiss, boys prefer roughhousing.



—Liza Finlay

Coed versus single-sex classroom resources



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