Single-Gender vs Mixed-Gender

Single-Gender vs Mixed-Gender

The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s the imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A doll’s house or a spaceship. A lot of boys like doll houses. They’re more human than space ships. A lot of girls like spaceships. They’re more exciting than doll houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.

From a 1974 Lego Ad


Although the new school year – new in so many ways – is only just underway, parents are already reaching out with questions about next year. One of the questions I often hear is “Should I send my child to a single-gender school’? Talk about a loaded question and a real can of worms.

Full disclosure, I am an unabashed advocate for co-education. In fact, when I am asked this question I often turn the question back on the parent and ask “What single-gender university are you planning on sending your child to? More often than not, the question is met with a rather quizzical look as if I have two heads. As well, I have yet to have anyone come back with a name or get the sense that this is really a consideration. In fact, in Canada, it isn’t even an option. You can attend single-gender colleges at ceratin universities, but all the classes are co-educational. There are options south of the border, but they are truly few and far between.

The answer to my somewhat facetious question is a good start for the topic. In almost all cases, parents who consider single-gender education for their child do so based on the age and stage of their child. Some parents do not want their child in a mixed-gender classroom because they feel that students of the opposite sex can be a distraction. Others feel that placing their child in a single-gender environment enables their child to break free from gender stereotypes that are reinforced in co-ed schools. This argument usually revolves around girls being free of the pressure to compete with boys in male-dominated subjects such as math and science whereas boys are more easily able to pursue traditionally “feminine” interests such as music and poetry. 

These two notions are quite often voiced and would appear to underscore their own adherence to the stereotypes. As well, they also perpetuate the belief that there are two brains – one is pink and the other is blue. So, I can see where people are coming from when they discuss the two types of brains. And yet, I take issue with the idea that girls have pink brains and boys have blue brain ( If brain research has taught us anything it is that each brain is different and that girls and boys do think differently, but so do girls and girls, and boys and boys. And of course, the simple two brain solution pays no attention to the LGBQT2S community. Since all brains are different, assigning a colour or a simplistic descriptor seems, well, outdated and unscientific. 

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I started teaching, things were a lot different. I began my career at one of the preeminent all-boys schools in Canada. In those days, everyone was taught the same way and in most cases, extra help meant a smack on the head and telling students to focus, pay attention and work harder as if the secrets of calculus, physics, and Shakespeare would unfold easily by heeding such simple instructions. Today, of course, learning strategists attend to individual learning styles and the specific needs of each unique learner. Some schools are better at this than others, but all attend to this change in pedagogy in one way or another. 

Another factor that played into the education of my single-gendered charges was the demographic being served. In most instances, mothers stayed home. Dad was the breadwinner and the stereotypes of men and women were underscored at home, at school in the sports realm, and in the entertainment industry. Men and women had different and distinct roles so why not ensure that kids were aware of this by sending them to a single-gender school. I realize that this is an oversimplification, but it was more the norm than not. There were also very few male teachers at girls’ schools or female teachers at boys’ schools. I mean, if a pre-pubescent or pubescent member of the opposite gender was a distraction, you can just imagine how distracting an adult member of the opposite sex would be. Shudder the thought.

Over the course, of my career, as society itself changed, so too did the demographic at the schools I worked. More and more families were double income and more and more sharing of the roles became the norm. Today I would argue that this is, even more, the norm. Certainly in my worldview and in Canada. And yet, people still send their kids to single-gender schools and still ponder whether that’s the right decision for their child. And that truly is the bottom line.

I can write all day long about the pros and the cons of single-gender education. I can also spout my own friendly held belief that separating children by gender doesn’t prepare them for the real world. I can also quote supporting studies on both sides of the argument. But all that makes the issue more confusing and opaque. What is both productive and appropriate is the consideration of who your child is. Of course, the younger they are the harder this is to determine, but nonetheless, it is something that must be top of mind. All kids are different. So why are you considering single-gender education for your child? Why do you think that this is in your child’s best interest? Have you also considered that just as not all children are the same, neither are all single-gender or co-educational schools created equally?

Whatever your considerations are based on, a very thorough understanding of the programs and opportunities is a must before making a decision. Both single-gender and co-educational schools can perpetuate age-old gender stereotypes. Similarlyindependence, both systems can encourage independence, confidence, and non-gender specific opportunities. It really comes down to your child and the culture of the school or schools being considered. Also, don’t forget to ask your child where they want to go to school. The earlier a child is given a voice in their education, the better, in my opinion.

At the end of the day, what is best for your child is just that. No matter what your decision, don’t let go of the reigns once you enroll your child at a single-gender or mixed-gender school. Make sure wherever they land they are encouraged to try anything that interests them and to push forward in traditional and non-traditional realms. Just because your daughter ends up at a single-gender school doesn’t automatically mean that leadership opportunities that are often dominated by boys at co-ed schools will magically open up. She will have to put forth her best effort and will not always succeed but nurtured and encouraged she will gain confidence and informed interest in this manner. And if your son arrives at an all-boys school, he may not make all the teams or he may not feel comfortable trying out for the play. He, too, will need to be encouraged and challenged. As well, he will gain confidence and resilience if he hears from his parents and educators to do so. As always, no matter where your child goes to school, the home, and school partnership is perhaps the most important part of the equation when it comes to student success. 







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