Trinity Anglican School is an independent, coeducational school based on Christian values. We often discuss what it means to be part of the independent school sector, and the importance of our Anglican ethos and Christian values, but discussions around the benefits of coeducation are not as common.
One of our culture statements is “The TAS community displays tolerance and respect for difference”. You can see this walking through the playground, with the range of cultures, religions, and races represented in our student body. This is something we value highly and is linked to a global outlook that educates our students to think outside their own backgrounds and experiences.
Coeducation – The Academic argument
Both sides of the debate cherry-pick individual research findings to support their views. As many of you are aware, I am an evidence-based guy. I listen to researchers such as Professor John Hattie who works with meta-analyses of education research, combining many studies to come up with what is considered more robust research outcomes. From the York School blog: “Hattie is opposed to making claims about what works in education based on limited data and only presents results from massive, combined studies. About achievement in math, for example, he says, “there was no support for the advantages of single-sex mathematics classes for either boys or girls….There are more powerful effects due to the quality of teaching and teacher expectations than whether a class is all one sex or mixed.” Furthermore, from the same source, “In another meta-analysis published in 2014, combining 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students from around the world, the researchers concluded that “single-sex education does not educate boys and girls any better than co-ed schools.”
From the Good Education Group: “However, there is no consistent evidence to show that students – either boys or girls – achieve higher grades in single-sex than in coeducational settings”. It would seem pretty much settled that there is no academic advantage to single-sex schooling. So is there a possible advantage to coeducation that is backed up by research?
But boys and girls brains’ work differently, don’t they?
Do boys and girls brains’ need separate, customized learning environments to succeed? This is another argument put forward by the proponents of single-sex schooling. Again we look to the experts for answers. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot from the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science studies male and female brains and how they develop. “There is much more overlap in the academic and even social-emotional abilities of the genders than there are differences,” Eliot explains. “To put it another way, the range of performance within each gender is wider than the difference between the average boy and girl. The truth is that no mental ability – or ability difference – is ‘hardwired’ into the brain.”
Furthermore, University of Melbourne psychologist Cordelia Fine feels that discussing the “difference” can be counterproductive. “The problem is, when you start talking about girl brains and boy brains, you are actually encouraging educators to do something that all educators understand they shouldn’t do, which is to put people in categories rather than to look at each child as an individual.” From The Conversation: “Similarly, in-depth analysis of educational outcomes by Janet Hyde and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin has found scant evidence that single-sex schooling leads to better academic achievement”. We frown upon classifying differences in brains by racial, political or sexual preference. Why is it considered acceptable to do this by gender?
Of course, all the research points to the skills and teaching effectiveness of the teacher as being clearly the dominant factor in student learning.
The social argument for co-education
Great teachers view all learners as unique individuals who come from a range of backgrounds, cultures and experiences. What messages do our children receive from single-sex schools about equality between genders? “Gender differences grow larger when girls or boys are separated and shrink when kids have genuine opportunities to work and play together. This is the crucial role that environment plays in the development of children”. All Saints College in Western Australia expresses this concept beautifully: “In the context of valuing diversity, respecting and interacting with the other gender is an absolutely essential first step. If we cannot manage that fundamental level of diversity, present in all aspects of our life, there is little hope that we can do so in more complex areas”.
From an article in The Conversation: “Research by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas and Lynn Liben at Penn State University has further corroborated this. Their work shows that children are especially susceptible to feelings of favoritism about members of their own group, and to prejudice against those in contrasting groups. The effect on children is the same whether adults divide them by race, gender, or even t-shirt color. Similarly, in classroom-based research, Valerie Lee at the University of Michigan found the greatest expression of sexism in all-boys’ schools. She found such behavior was not limited to males – all-girls’ campuses could also foster stereotyping and a type of “pernicious sexism,” or dumbing-down of challenging material”.
From The Good Education Group website in reference to single-sex boys schools: “It is socialisation, readiness for the real world, that is seen as a major advantage of coeducational schooling for boys. While boys may learn to develop healthy relationships, and value and respect girls, this is less likely to occur in single-sex boys’ schools”. We saw this at its worst in the recent actions of some boys on a tram from St Kevin’s Catholic College in Toorak, Melbourne.
Real-life is full of diversity. Our students should develop the skills to be comfortable and able to work and live with people from all backgrounds. That includes gender.