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Do Women Learn Differently?
A Conversation

How does the old rhyme go? Little boys are made of sugar and spice and all things nice; whereas little girls are made of puppy-dog tails and snails, or should that be the other way around?

I'm indebted to Marc for raising this subject, though when I first read the title I thought there would be nothing I could write. I've never taught in a university never mind one that caters to a single sex only. I've worked mainly with children and never paid serious attention to the differences between boys and girls. But given the information that Peter provides it is necessary for me to do so, especially as I will be opening a school soon. Should I create single-sex classes and use different strategies for the different sexes, perhaps using co-operative games and activities with the girls and competitive ones with the boys? Should I, to mangle the words of Teddy Roosevelt, speak softly and carry a small stick with the girls and speak loudly and wield a big stick with the boys? Would this be honouring differences or compounding them?

If the brains of girls and boys are different, what makes this so? Is natural selection at work and, if so, how have structures in society contributed to this? If society were different, if men and women behaved differently, would this gradually over time affect the physiology of the brain? Or is that physiology fixed, immutable? Certainly, I don't think the physiology of children's brains will change much during the life-time of my school. But does that matter? After all, should we act as we think things are or as we wish them to be? How does change take place?

The National Association For Single-Sex Education makes an interesting case for its premise. According to the research they outline, single-sex education produces both more academically able students and more well rounded individuals, and this goes for boys as well as girls. But then what about class size? Could this have more of an impact than whether the class is co-ed or not? I also wonder to what extent the compulsory nature of schooling has an effect. Would studies of democratic schools produce the same results? I have strong doubts. I also question the legitimacy of much of what is being measured. Exactly what is academic performance? Why is it important? Test results are better ­ so what? I agree with Krishnamurti when he writes, "Education is not merely acquiring knowledge , gathering and correlating facts; it is to see the significance of life as a whole." By this measure, whether a typical school is single-sex or co-educational is irrelevant. Typically, school is not focused on this at all.

But, perhaps I am jumping the biscuit. I'm currently employed teaching English to kindergarten children. Would they learn more English if the classes were segregated? However, rather than considering differences between girls and boys as groups it is surely better to actually focus on individual children. I know noisy boys, quiet boys, mischievous boys, sullen boys, eager boys and the same goes for the girls as well. Individual differences far outweigh the differences in the brains of each sex. One should be able to focus on individuals. If teaching situations don't allow this, then shouldn't we be doing something about the teaching situations, and perhaps focusing on the beliefs and attitudes of society while we are at it?

The idea of looking at individuals is fair enough, but how can one actually do it? The key, as Adele Faber and Elizabeth Mazlisch explain in Siblings Without Rivalry , is not to treat all the children the same, or focus on abstract notions of fairness, but to respond to individual needs. Some children demand more individual attention because that is what they need. The attention that children need also varies from moment to moment. One can sometimes feel like a juggler. One reason I favour team-teaching with young children is that an extra pair of hands can help minimise the number of 'drops'. But if there is conflict between focusing on learning language and focusing on a child's other needs, I think language learning must take second place. That is a lesson in itself.

Though I like to vary approaches according to who I am with, there are still some things that I don't do and one of them is use competitive games. Apparently girls who attend single-sex schools are more likely to participate in competitive sports. I wonder if this is evidence that the norms of modern society are competitive? I won't stop children from playing competitive games and will use them in class if requested, but I see no reason to support such norms. With children I've only found disadvantages. The more competitive a game the more learning language is drowned out by focusing on winning. The more competitive a game the more aggressive and vindictive and just plain nasty children become.

Because competition is a norm, I want children to have the opportunity to experience other patterns and models. I think it is also worth noting that there is a difference between non-competitive games and genuine co-operative games. Both differ from competitive games in that one is not trying to beat other players, but in a genuine co-operative game players can only succeed by working together. For example, recently I've been using a mountain climbing game to review vocabulary. Players divide into four teams and each team is in charge of a mountaineer. Teams are presented with flashcards and the first team to identify the card wins it. I go through eight to ten cards per round. At the end of each round the mountaineers move one space for each card won. The wrinkle is that the mountaineers are roped together. Any climber who advances beyond the length of the rope falls back to the level of the bottom climber. To climb the mountain, teams need to share out the cards. This means learning not to shout out answers quickly. Play is against the clock and players see how many climbers can be got to the top of the mountain within the time limit.

As the game is played now it is very noisy. Perhaps it is too noisy. Perhaps it needs some new rules to encourage quieter answers. Or perhaps I should use an alternative game that is quieter. I think it is important to engage children with a variety of activities and obtain genuine feedback from them. Accordingly, I feel that information such as girls are more likely to be sensitive to noise than boys is important in that it provides a frame of reference but it is no substitute for being attentive. But being attentive has limited value unless the overall environment is non-threatening. This means paying attention to the relationship between students and using both team and class-building activities. Ultimately, whatever little boys and girls are really made of, the more a class functions as a community the more learning can take place.

August 2005
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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