Hi all, I’m Eesha Pandit, and am delighted to be doing some guest blogging here. For my day job, I do some international human rights work. And I blog over at the Crunk Feminist Collective, and recently at Feministing as well. Hello!
As happens from time to time, long-standing issues resurface in new and interesting ways. This time it’s gender segregation in classrooms.
As a proud graduate of a women’s college, I understand both the merits and drawbacks of gender based segregation in a classroom setting. However, there are clear differences between gender segregation at the college level and the same practice at the elementary and middle school level. The students’ age and ability to chose the experience, for one.
A steadily increasing number of elementary and middle schools are embracing the notion that having gender (male and female) segregated classrooms can eliminate the distractions that exist in having mixed classrooms.
According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) this is a booming trend. In 2003 there were 50 such classrooms. Today there are over 400. South Carolina has 100 districts offering all-boy and all-girl classes. And 39 other states are also giving this approach a shot.
So there are several interesting points of contention. Opponents of this practice liken it to racial segregation. And supporters say the practice creates a better learning environment and allows the teachers to create lesson plans that are specifically tailored.
Interestingly, “Girls will usually say that they’re able to share their ideas more in an all-girls classroom. Boys will tend to say that they’re not distracted by the girls,” said David Chadwell, South Carolina’s coordinator for single-gender initiatives.
Apparently, this isn’t about making a gendered (read: essentialist) claim that boys and girl learn differently. Instead, it seems that the rationale is nuanced. E. Mark Mahone, Director of Neuropsychology at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, which specializes in child brain development and disorders, says that natural differences between boys and girls combined with social factors can lead to big differences in how they act in the classroom.
“There are a lot of factors that go into learning that can either enhance it or get in the way,” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “There is a lot of evidence to suggest benefits for having single-sex education. According to NASSPE, schools that have successfully implemented same-sex classes often report more attentive students and fewer disruptions.
So, ok. I’m following the logic. Boys and girls are socialized differently. There might be some “natural” differences in the way they learn (though, I remain unconvinced about what that means, and how it is determined and measured). And so far, participation in these classrooms is optional at the schools that have instituted them. So there can indeed be benefits to this approach. For example, some schools that are using the method are finding that students are thriving – girls are speaking up and choosing to pursue math and science, boys are acting out less (to mention some of the notably “gendered” issues. Now, how about the implications of the idea itself?
It seems there are several possible concerns here. Firstly, there are only two genders represented. In addition to reinforcing the gender binary, we know that even at a young age children are aware of gender identity/expression and can begin resisting the gender identity (and related sexual orientation expectations) given to them at birth.
Secondly, it seems that by cementing the gender binary we’re not challenging the problem of gendered socialization at it’s core. Is it really a solution to just separate the folks who are being socialized differently, even if much of that socialization is happening outside of the classroom? Or might we come up with some big picture, community based solutions that address the kinds of problems that arise, i.e. that little girls are told to be beautiful and boys are encouraged to be brilliant?
I haven’t any answers, but even though I went to a women’s college (where we wrestled with issues like trans-inclusion, among others), I am reluctant to move immediately to reinforce the very binary that is at the root of the problem. I’m curious of your thoughts Feminste-as. Please share them in the comments.