When Does Gender Become an Influential Factor in Education?



Ursuline Academy

In recent years, there has been much attention paid to the benefits of single-sex­ education, especially in the case of girls. Findings from major research projects show time and time again the overwhelming benefits for girls-only classrooms beginning in puberty, when girls become acutely aware of their body image and care deeply what others think of them. Though both boys and girls go through a transition period in adolescence, American Association of University Women research shows that it is a significantly more difficult time for girls. Studies continually find that girls of this age flourish in a single-sex environment, with particular benefits in the areas of self-esteem, leadership skills, academic achievement and a more positive attitude toward learning.

After examining a wide range of research, it is believed that boys and girls at this stage of development benefit by learning together, not apart, for several reasons. First, child development experts have long realized the benefits of valuable interactive play and shared learning at this age. Through working together in play and learning situations, boys and girls gain social maturity, which is an essential part of their development. Whether on the playground, in the cafeteria, in gym class or in cooperative learning groups in the classroom, coeducational experiences foster the development of the whole child. What they learn in these years they will carry with them throughout their lifetimes.

Another significant rationale for keeping boys and girls of this age together points to the area of brain research. We now know for sure that girls and boys are "wired" differently from the beginning, with structural, hormonal and functional differences. As one example, males tend to have more development in certain areas of the right hemisphere of the brain, providing them with better spatial abilities, while females tend to have better verbal abilities using the left hemisphere. Because of these differences and others, boys and girls will choose activities based on their natural tendencies. IGGS educational research suggests that at a time when brain development is crucial, both boys and girls may benefit from choosing "against the grain gender experiences to help create a well-balanced brain, better equipped to handle the range of tasks and challenges a person will face throughout life."

Research about the benefits of single-sex education generally relates to adolescence, when so many other factors come into play. Until then, it is believed that boys and girls should learn together as they grow and develop in a safe and supportive environment.

Karen Carter, a Kindergarten teacher for 29 years, has a BS in early childhood education from the University of Delaware and an MEd in elementary education from Wilmington College. She teaches at Ursuline Academy, a 120-plus-year-old school in Wilmington, DE, that provides a coed education from age 3 through grade 5, at which point the academy becomes a single-sex educational setting for young women in grades 6 through 12. This article was compiled from key research done by Jo Ann Deak, Ken Rowe, M and D Sadker and the AAUW (American Association of University Women).

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