Same gender schools or co-ed schools? As the debate continues, a look at the socio-psychological angles
Mothers have always said it: boys and girls don’t grow up the same way. Teachers have asked in staffroom conversation: do you prefer to teach girls or boys? Now there’s a deluge of data that details how boys and girls have different developmental trajectories and different brains. If maturity levels of boys and girls are so different, how can they be taught in the same classroom?
Their brain develops differently, and is wired differently, say neurologists. In girls, the language areas develop first, and for boys it is areas used for understanding spatial relations (think geometry). In girls, emotions and language are processed in the same area. In boys, regions involved in talking and feeling are separate. It’s easy for most girls to talk about their emotions. Have you asked a boy: “How do you feel?”
A teenage girl has a sense of hearing seven times more acute. Explains why daughters complain that their fathers shout at them. Stress improves learning in males. It messes up learning in females. They don’t even read the same books. Boys say they like being on their own, and that girls don’t appreciate their jokes. And, think boys are messy!
These differences matter in childrearing and teaching. Do teachers engage boys’ energy? Pay attention to girls’ need to connect? Ignoring them could be one reason why we have aggressive teen boys and emotionally-charged teen girls.
More arguments: Girls who attend single-sex (SS) schools are more likely to participate in competitive sports than girls in co-education schools. Teachers admit to fewer discipline problems in SS classrooms. What about sex education? Won’t a teacher feel freer in her statements? “Two sides of the coin,” says Meena Muthiah, whose “aged” schools are segregated. “That’s the choice for orthodox parents. Personally, I believe in moving with the times.” All her new schools and college are co-ed. “Kids need to grow up with the idea of the real world.” “There are pros and cons to the mixed system” says Cecilia Sundaram, who has taught both the sexes. Yeah, there are high-school crushes, and kids getting off the track. But most are focused, and the rest get back on the track. When kids grow up together, they develop natural responses. But, girls from segregated schools feel odd and strange in front of boys. “Sure, there are behavioural differences, and that’s the whole charm of teaching,” he says.
“Definitely co-ed schools,” say educators, weighing it as a social issue. School is where kids learn to give each other space. Part of education is learning about community living, about the mixed society outside, the cultural dimensions of plural living. How do you expect it in years of uneven growth in a restricted, artificial, uni-polar world?
Says Neelakantan, Principal, Sivaswamy Kalalaya: “Suddenly kids find themselves in co-ed colleges, unable to handle boys / girls. In school, girls learn to assess boys as to who wants friendship, who’s up to mischief etc. In a dynamic culture, we need to change our methods of management.” Physical safety? “If they spend 18 years without looking at boys, what emotional safety do they have? Same-gender (SG) schools may not discuss sexuality. Is that healthy? Anyway, neither group needs the other to get distracted. There’s TV, cellphone, movies,” he says.
“By allowing them to be aware of it, to express it, you make them ready for life,” says Nandakumar, Principal, Ecole Modiale World School. “Why would you suspect kids? Exposed to natural situations, kids make informed choices about life. Good co-ed schools teach kids responsible behaviour, give them information, mentor them. How does a closed atmosphere ensure good behaviour?” He adds: “Boys ‘not’ being there could be a distraction.” Academics? “Mixed classrooms foster wholesome, multi-dimensional approaches to lessons. Interpretation of concepts can be vastly different between girls and boys. Differences get accepted,” he says.
“School is the place where our children learn to interact with people of different ages, abilities, social class and gender in an appropriate way,” says Dr. Suma Balagopal, psychiatrist. “Mixed schools ensure that children of both sexes grow up together, taking for granted the differences, and learning to recognise similarities that transcend gender. A completely sheltered life at school will, at worst, increase the chances of rash, impulsive or uninformed interpersonal decisions, or at the very least lead to a tentativeness that comes with a lack of exposure.”
There’s no glossing over the challenges of educating a bunch of young people with high-kicking hormones. “Handle it with sensibility,” says Neelakantan. “Have a well-thought-out philosophy,” says Nandakumar. “For teachers and parents who have an open mind, a sense of humour and a willingness to talk, this is no particular problem,” says Suma. “Let our schools reflect the diversity and vibrancy of our society, not homogenise the environment for our children.”GEETA PADMANABHAN