Gender - Is single-sex the recipe for success?

23rd August 2013 at 01:00
US psychologist argues 'inbuilt' differences have been ignored

Leonard Sax is no stranger to controversy: the US psychologist has been ruffling feathers since a 2005 Time cover story highlighted his belief that mixed-gender schooling could be depriving the world of outstanding female scientists and engineers. But Dr Sax, a frequent guest on US news networks, has now turned his attention to the UK, claiming that teachers on both sides of the Atlantic do not know how best to teach girls and boys.

Dr Sax believes that hard-wired differences between the genders explain why, for example, girls may be exasperated during their first physics lessons and lost to the subject within weeks.

He referred to research by developmental psychologists showing that young male humans and some primates like playing with trucks because of an inbuilt fascination. "Males, whether they are human, chimpanzees or monkeys, are interested in things that move," Dr Sax told TES on a recent visit to Edinburgh, Scotland. The same does not apply to girls, he argued, bringing him back to that physics class.

"Physics traditionally starts with kinematics, with Newton's laws of motion, which means that it is typical that you begin with race cars accelerating, football players colliding - things moving," said the author of Why Gender Matters. "And boys love it. But many girls look at this and say, 'I think I'll take another semester of advanced French literature.' "

The founder and director of the National Association for Choice in Education (formerly the National Association for Single Sex Public Education) insisted that he is driven by evidence, not ideology. Academics have been ignored because their findings clash with the prevailing view in the past 30 years that gender is not important in education, he said.

Dr Sax, who has visited hundreds of schools across several countries to deliver workshops, insisted it is "demonstrably false" that good teaching is good regardless of gender.

"I can tell you about many teachers who are a great success at a boys' school but a complete disaster at a girls' school or a mixed school," he said. In fact, he claimed, more than 90 per cent of teachers are much better at teaching one or other gender, although their own sex has little bearing on that.

"Ignoring gender, as we have for the last few decades, has not brought us to an enlightened paradise where boys write about their feelings and study French literature, while girls work on their mechanical engineering skills," Dr Sax said. "On the contrary, it has exaggerated the gender stereotypes. Across Britain and North America, we now find teenage girls who are focused on how they look, obviously to please the boys, in a way that was not the case 30 years ago."


Dr Sax fears that many schools of education in the English-speaking world have no interest in sharing with their students the findings on gender that have fascinated him.

He believes that esteemed institutions such as Harvard and Columbia universities in the US are a "complete catastrophe as far as understanding gender difference" goes.

But he does not believe single-sex schooling is automatically superior. If teachers have not been educated in the differences between the genders, he says that schools should not split up boys and girls.

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