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Single-Gender Classroom May Focus Students, But Does It Help Them Learn?

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
Julio Villaneda (left) and Dorothy Wiese (right) both teach math at single-sex public schools in Austin.

Do boys and girls learn differently?

Some single-sex supporters say yes, but not everyone agrees — not even those who work at the two new single-sex middle schools on Austin’s east side. 

But teachers at these schools do say there are positives to splitting the sexes.  

Julio Villaneda teaches seventh grade math at Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy. Dorothy Wiese teaches seventh grade math at Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy. 

During the past few weeks, they've been teaching students surface area and volume. But they're using two different strategies to teach the boys and girls. Villaneda is using more direct instruction, going back and forth with students individually as they solve math problems on calculators. 

Wiese is using a different strategy to teach volume.

“I want us to get into a couple groups real quick though. We’re going to get in groups of four in a little 'U,'" she tells her students.

"Being at the all-girls [school], we can group them more and they are more comfortable talking to each other and discussing things and working it out, which is huge," Wiese says.

Grouping is just one strategy teachers at both schools were taught this summer as they prepared for the new single-sex schools.

“Girls, grouping and check lists and having things so they can do it so in their minds, so they can see it," Wiese says. "With the boys, it was a lot easier to do direct instruction, standing up and helping them one by one."

Before moving to Austin, Wiese taught at a single-sex boys school in Grand Prairie, Tex. It's the same school Garcia YMLA Principal Sterlin McGruder worked at a few years ago.

This summer, the teachers had a two-day training with David Chadwell, a single-sex education consultant. He advocates for more structure for boys — bullet-point directions for them to follow. For girls, he says it’s better to help them make connections between themselves and the content they’re learning. But Wiese says those strategies haven’t changed her instruction — they’re just guidelines.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT
Dorothy Wiese has taught all-boys, all-girls and co-ed classrooms. She says single-sex classrooms help students better focus.

"If I were to go over to the boys school and use these strategies, I think it’d be just as successful, maybe a different tone of voice or something," she says. "But overall, I don’t think there’s one way a girl learns and one way a boy learns, there are small little differences, because they are different."

“I completely agree with her," says UT Professor Rebecca Bigler. She is an opponent of single-sex education and has done a lot of research on it.

“The overlap between boys and girls is enormous. What works in a boys' classroom will also work in a girls' classroom.”

But Bigler says separating boys and girls is problematic, because it can reinforce stereotyping and prejudice in teachers and students. 

She says all these strategies — giving one-on-one direct instruction to boys — and more group work with girls — could potentially lead to teachers discriminating against boys and girls.

“There are many girls who need one-on-one teacher attention and who are not drawn to cooperation and friendship and like to compete, for example," she says. "And many boys who are uncomfortable with competition.”

Both Villaneda and Wiese say they do see benefits in separating boys and girls. They say the best part of teaching single-sex classrooms has nothing to do with how boys and girls learn. It's about focus.

“There’s just an element that they’re able, with splitting them, that they’re able to sit down and focus and really pay attention more," Wiese says. "And what we need in middle school years is pivotal to get that foundation down for their education.”

Villaneda agrees. "They're more focused. And middle school kids, it's all about getting them to focus."

Villaneda has taught at Garcia Middle School since it opened in 2007, and he’s seen the same boys become different people this year.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT
Julio Villaneda teaches seventh grade math and coaches the seventh grade basketball team. He says coaching and teaching the same students helps him better understand each student individually.

“One of the trainings we saw in the summer time is a lot of attitude, a lot of the teenage angst comes from wanting to show off for someone else," he remembers. "Now we don’t see that so much because the boys aren’t showing off for the girls.” 

Villaneda says good teachers will take all this advice, test it out, and use what students react to the best, regardless of gender. But he does see differences between girls and boys. 

“Girls are a little bit more mellow, they want to please. Boys are always moving around," Villaneda says.

But at the end of the day, he says, every student is different.

“It’s all individualized because sometimes boys struggle and they don’t have the confidence, but once they have the confidence, I think for boys or girls, it’s all about the confidence in math.” 

UT’s Rebecca Bigler agrees — it’s the teacher making the difference, not the removal of one sex from the classroom.

“When teachers figure out this child responds to cooperation, this to challenge, this child likes insects and will really take off on a project tailored to their specific interests, those teachers have better outcomes when there are both girls and boys in their room," Bigler says. "There is absolutely nothing magical about removing one gender from a room.” 

For Bigler, it’s about getting good teachers in front of students — not about separating the students they’re teaching students by gender.

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