Go single-sex to serve 'social justice'

23rd August 2013 at 01:00
Mixed-gender monopoly is bad for students, psychologist argues

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. Now, Dr Sax has turned his attention to Scotland.

During a recent visit to Edinburgh, he told TESS that Scotland - which has few single-sex schools and all of them in the independent sector - should have at least one state-funded school for boys and another for girls. "It's a matter of social justice," he said.

The founder and director of the National Association for Choice in Education (formerly the National Association for Single Sex Public Education), and author of books including Why Gender Matters, insisted that he was driven by evidence, not ideology, citing the welter of academic references that have informed his work. Top 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 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," he said.

The same does not apply to girls, Dr Sax 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," he explained. "And boys love it. But many girls look at this and say, `I think I'll take another semester of advanced French literature.'"

Yet, Dr Sax said, he knows of a school in Melbourne, Australia, where an "astonishing" half of girls take the second year of elective physics because "the very first thing the teacher says to her all-girls class is `What is light?'"

"Every single girl is fascinated, including the girl who has a photo of Paris Hilton on her mobile phone, the girly girl," he said. "They only get into kinematics four months into the school year."

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 added, 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."

But Dr Sax does not believe that 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.

Sax on the sexes

Leonard Sax - whose visit to Scotland took him to the independent St George's School for Girls and Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, and Kilgraston School in Perthshire - fears that many educational institutions in the English-speaking world have no interest in sharing the evidence that has fascinated him with their students.

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

Photo credit: James Glossop

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