When discussing the relative advantages of single gender versus coeducational education, there is a natural tendency to inflate points of difference. After thirty years of teaching in girls, boys, and coeducational schools, I think it’s important to understand that it’s not a case of one school model’s being superior to others. While a boys school may be right for one son, a coed school may be appropriate setting for his brother.
Critics of single gender education sometimes stress the fact that “life is coed.” This truth, though, doesn’t undermine the value of giving youngsters the sanctuary of a single gender environment – at least for a few years — as they ride the sometimes bumpy roller coaster of adolescence. A comfortable environment, free from preening and posturing, can allow children the chance to understand themselves as they discover interests, refine skills, and embrace values.
The first assembly I attended at a boys’ elementary school caught me off guard. The captain of the Grade 7 soccer team was standing in front of 400 boys, but instead of simply praising his team’s accomplishment, he literally sang a tribute to their championship season; he belted out the words he had written to the melody of “I Will Survive.” The captain may have been off key, but no one complained, and Gloria Gaynor might have been proud.
As I sat there in the dark, it occurred to me that, if there were even one girl in the audience, this scene would never have worked. It’s almost inconceivable that an early adolescent boy would have taken such a risk in the presence of a single girl. (A colleague believes that “all boy are economists at heart. They are always doing cost/benefit analysis for everything.”) In this case, the stakes would have been far too high.
There are many sound reasons for boys’ schools, especially if the teachers at those schools embrace the broad and occasionally nuanced challenges of boys. If teachers understand how boys grow and develop, they can address the organization and reading challenges that sometimes hold boys back. (“Do you have your agenda with your homework assignments? Do you know when your next French test is? What did you think of “The Social Network”?)
Yes, boys can be impulsive. They may need to move around a bit. (“Ok, you’ll need to work in groups for the next 15 minutes, so I want you to literally pick up your desks and move…”) And they have a need to challenge authority from time to time. (“Don’t you think this global warming hysteria is a bit contrived?”) But even beyond sound pedagogy, boys can benefit from the cultural liberation that can be created in single gender schools.
A friend told me a story about an English teacher who taught Hamlet to a Grade 10 class at a boys’ school, and later, with the same group of boys, he also taught the class with a neighbouring girls’ school. When he taught the boys and asked for volunteers to read out the role of Ophelia, 20 boys raised their hands. But when he taught the class with the girls, not one boy raised a hand. (There is that economics issue at work again!)
As a parent and teacher, wouldn’t we all be happier knowing that our sons had an opportunity and felt the freedom to participate in anything they felt passionate about, regardless of what society deems is appropriate for boys? There’s enough time to worry about that when they join the adult world. School should be a safe zone, a place for all of children to explore and discover themselves.
I like to think of our schools as the “Big ‘N Tall” store for boys. If you are 6 foot 4, you might find a great fitting suit at Sears, but he’s much more likely to find one at the “Big ‘N Tall because that’s where they “get” big people. I think that we “get” boys – warts and all. While always guarding against a “boys will be boys” mentality, we try to create a safe space for boys to take risks. We believe there are many roads to manhood, many paths to success, and we’d like to make all of these broad avenues available to our boys. It’s not that that biology is destiny, but we do believe it’s proclivity.
If you saw the Spaniard soccer players’ celebrating after their World Cup victory, you saw them hugging, crying, and kissing one another. The athletic context created a space for complete freedom of expression. While we don’t win World Cups on a daily basis in boys’ schools, we do enjoy the freedom to celebrate the occasional wins that come our way. Just don’t tell Gloria Gaynor how we do it.