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Should boys and girls be taught in separate classes to improve students' grades?
Greene Country, Georgia is about to separate boys from girls in all of its schools, primary and secondary. They apparently have a terrible track record with their education system. The promoters say there is evidence that each sex learns better when not distracted by the other (funny, that was the justification for keeping girls out of college in the 19th century). The detractors call it a reintroduction of segregation (presumably the most inflammatory term they could come up with on short notice). My questions are: (1) Do you think it will "work" (improve students' grades)? (2) Are there important reasons to object to it even if it does "work" (in this narrowly defined way)?
Several developmental psychologists spoke on NPR's "Science Friday" in a panel discussion on topics including if classrooms should be segregated by gender. Among the panelists were Lynn Liben (outgoing editor of "Child Development" who does very interesting research connecting Piagetian stage to gender stereotyping, as well as her primary research on geography and understanding of spatial representations) and Nora Newcomb (well known for her research on spatial cognition in infancy and early childhood). Here is the link for the podcast:
There may be many consequences of segregating children and the particular way things change may depend on many intertwined circumstances. What are the particular teachers like in their classrooms now? Are teachers already conscientious about avoiding common patterns of calling on boys disproportionately and giving boys more detailed feedback (e.g., Sadker's educational psychology research)? What beliefs do the teachers have about gender and how might that influence how they teach the same course to each group? For example, will teachers stop pushing as hard in girls' math classes, or in boys' english classes, even though the actual sex differences on standardized tests is very small? Will gender become more salient to students and will that create a stereotype threat (which has a far greater effect size on standardized tests)? Will assigning teachers segregated classrooms lead to more stereotyping (e.g., my 4th period scored 3 points higher on the exam than my 5th period so maybe it's because of gender)? What is the classroom management situation of the school and teacher and what are the accepted gender norms among the students (e.g., will a quiet boy suffer in a classroom overwhelmed by rowdy boys who echo each other; will a mechanically-minded girl become less self-assured when other girls echo each others' attitudes toward science)? When we measure success, what is our comparison? Will we just care how gender-segregated classrooms differ from gender-mixed classrooms, or should we compare gender-segregation with segregation by other factors like introversion, standardized test scores, or doing homework regularly?
Overall, my personal feeling is that we should not segregate based on gender. There are too many plausible reasons to expect it to cause harm either by negatively influencing children's self concepts, learning experiences, or by exacerbating gender stereotypes. I'm personally happy to see a school trying to apply developmental psychology research to do something to change a bad status quo. With so many intertwined factors, it's likely to be an incredibly big challenge that no one action can fix. I hope school administrators will draw upon an enormous body of research by developmental and educational psychologists about how to enhance students' learning (e.g., mental models, problem solving strategies, emotion regulation, task analysis like buggy subtraction, phonemic awareness, informal learning opportunities, scaffolding, inquiry learning, jig-saw classrooms, teacher attitudes, parenting styles, mass media, ...).
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