You know you’re getting old(er) when The Big New Thing is something you remember as a perfectly ordinary feature of everyday life. It makes you wonder if there really are only about 10 major ideas that govern human existence, and they fade in and out of vogue and are rediscovered and repackaged every other generation.
Single-sex education is the new cause célèbre among some educators these days, according to a recent article in The New York Times Magazine. To hear the experts talk about it, you’d think they had identified a new galaxy. Boys and girls learn differently! Boys and girls learn more, contribute more to class discussion, are less distracted and better behaved when they are taught separately! Oh, and it helps if they wear uniforms! Who knew?
The Victorians, for a start. Once they broke down and admitted girls deserved to be educated in some organized fashion, they went out and founded female seminaries. A fair number of women’s colleges began as academies for young ladies. Schools for boys had been around since the Middle Ages.
The Connecticut girls’ school in which I spent five formative years was founded in 1848. The inspiration of a French nun named Madeleine Sophie Barat, my school and its sister schools around the globe held fast to the foundress’ belief that when you educate a woman, you educate a family. And when you educate a family, you educate the world.
The training I received was built on a 19th century model of decorum, grace, and self-control, supported by an intellectual rigor that demanded clarity of thought and expression. We wrote essays every night on history or literature. These were corrected and handed back for revision, refined and polished until I believed I could construct a well-organized paragraph in my sleep. Twice a year, we had oral examinations with random questions drawn from the syllabus. No one graduated without learning to speak and write clearly and persuasively, and no one graduated without a network of lifelong friends and an inkling of her place in the world.
Could this have been achieved in coed classrooms pulsing with hormones? Somehow, I doubt it. We complained bitterly about the cloistered atmosphere and quaint rules, but the place was designed to nurture the minds and spirits of young girls. It was a safe space in which to try out new ideas and find one’s voice without fear of ridicule or judgment.
The research cited in the Times article describes gender differences in everything from brain chemistry to hearing and sense of smell. In one all-boys’ classroom in Alabama, the walls are painted blue and the thermostat is set at 69 degrees. Down the hall in the girls’ class, the walls are yellow and it’s six degrees warmer. Whatever the science, there seems to be a case for creating an environment that fosters individual strengths and addresses weaknesses without making odious comparisons. Boys need more physical activity, which doesn’t automatically make them bad or disruptive. Girls take time to connect with the content, the teacher, and each other, which doesn’t necessarily make them needy or garrulous. Putting these different learning styles together in a single room with a single, overworked teacher is a tall order.
Opponents of the single-sex classroom idea claim it’s discriminatory, antiquated, and based on fuzzy findings. The most dramatic success stories seem to involve small charter schools and children at high risk of failing for a variety of reasons. But the stories, however anecdotal, share a common element. The teacher, the principal, the parents, and the system invest deeply in each child’s learning. They recognize that one size does not, in fact, fit all. Pushed to the brink by the repeated failure of conventional wisdom, they’re willing to try anything. Even if it’s demanding, complicated, and controversial. Even if it comes from the 19th century.