No single-sex, please

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Learning environments geared to the needs of one gender fail to develop the strengths associated with the other. Stephen Briers

Superior league table performance of single-sex schools owes as much to factors such as the socio-economic advantages of their pupils as to gender segregation. So says research from Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University.

These findings will disappoint authors Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, champions of the view that hard-wired differences between the sexes predicate different learning styles. The gendered brain lobby maintains that neither boys nor girls can achieve their educational potential outside learning environments designed to accommodate these innate psychological distinctions.

There is, indeed, evidence for differences between the neurology, cognition and developmental sequencing of the average male and female brain. The verbal and fine motor skills of girls can mature up to six years ahead of their male peers. Brain lesion studies show that the male brain appears to be functionally more compartmentalised and that the density of connections in the corpus callosum (the exchange network linking the two hemispheres) is usually much greater in females. Boys and girls also release different hormones in response to stress, tending to make risky situations exciting for boys and unpleasant for girls.

The problem is not, however, with the scientific evidence for gender biases, but the inferences drawn from it. In reality there is much more variance in the gender status of individual brains than authors such as Leonard Sax would allow. Psychologically, masculinity and femininity are independent traits and even neurologically so-called bridge-brained children demonstrate the properties of both. For many children, an environment geared exclusively to the needs of one sex would compromise the expression of capacities associated with the other.

By emphasising contrasts between male and female brains, these authors ignore the truly distinctive feature they share in common: their innate flexibility. Joan Stiles of the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California stresses that neural plasticity is a key property of normal development. Although biological constraints exist, human beings are able to respond to environmental input in ways that can reprogramme them at the most basic neurological level. Computer-simulated neural networks also suggest that much less may be hard-wired into the brain than had formerly been assumed.

Neither does the fact that gender may favour the expression of certain skills imply that other abilities cannot be nurtured. If our society values superior female capacities for moral reasoning, verbal sophistication and self-regulation, then we need to expose boys to environments in which those capabilities are actively promoted and, more importantly, consistently modelled. Social learning theory from Albert Bandura onwards underlines the importance of role-modelling in human development. The recent discovery of mirror neurons may lend even more currency to the phrase "monkey see, monkey do". Specialised clusters of these cells are triggered in the brain during the observation of action in ways scientists believe facilitate the vicarious acquisition of useful skills.

The Parma group pioneering this research is speculating that cognitive, emotional and social abilities may be assimilated in similar fashion. If this is the case, then the value of exposing the sexes to each other's strengths may be even more important than previously thought. Boys and girls should be educated alongside each other not only to learn about each other, but also to learn from each other. The enterprise of civilisation has always required the subjugation of certain aspects of our nature and the cultivation of others. One might argue that it is the development of the skills that do not come naturally that is actually the true measure of our education system Stephen Briers is a clinical psychologist. He appears on BBC Three's parenting programme Little Angels

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