Results of a four-year study of gender differences in education 2005

Leonard Sax, Executive Director, NASSPE

Researchers at Cambridge University have just released results of a four-year study of gender differences in education. The researchers investigated hundreds of different schools, representing a wide variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, seeking to identify strategies which improved performance of both girls and boys while narrowing the gender gap between girls and boys. What makes this study really unique is that the researchers did not merely observe and document what they found; they then intervened, and attempted to graft those strategies onto other, less successful schools. A total of 50 schools were involved either as “originator schools” (schools which had successfully improved student performance while narrowing the gender gap) or “partner schools” (less successful schools onto which the “originator” strategies were grafted).

One of those strategies was single-sex education. These researchers found that the single-sex classroom format was remarkably effective at boosting boys’ performance particularly in English and foreign languages, as well as improving girls’ performance in math and science.

I had the honor of sharing the podium last week with the lead authors of the study, Michael Younger and Molly Warrington. Together, we did six presentations in two days! It was a great privilege to be able to discuss the study with the lead investigators face-to-face. Michael Younger more than once referred to the improved performance of the boys in the single-sex foreign languages classes as “astonishing.” Both researchers emphasized that it is not sufficient simply to put all the girls in one room and all the boys in another and say “let’s give it a whirl.” Teachers and administrators need to be committed to the program and must be determined to see it through.

The full report contains many fascinating insights from students and teachers. Consider this comment from one of the boys in the single-gender class:
We don’t just do war poems and Macbeth, we do Wordsworth too. It’s a challenge, in a way, which Mr J sets us to show the girls we’re capable of doing it, but I couldn’t talk about these things if there were girls there! (p. 85)

The researchers conducted extensive interviews with individual students, and thus were able to distinguish among students rather than lumping all the boys into one group and all the girls into another. The researchers were particularly interested in gender-atypical boys: boys who don’t care for sports, for example. How do these pupils fare in the all-boys classroom?
Interviews with [these] ‘non-macho’ boys suggest that these boys did not feel exposed in single-sex classes. . . .Such boys told us – without exception – that they felt at ease and comfortable, that they did not experience bullying or aggressive behaviour from other boys, and that they were not intimidated by the atmosphere in all-boys’ classes. (p. 86)