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Jeannette Smith says it was obvious from the get-go her two daughters were "very different learners.

"While I have one very imaginative daughter, I also have one very logical daughter," she explains.

Her solution was to put her eldest, Noel, now 27, into a specialized, publicly-funded, co-ed arts program – Ottawa's Canterbury High School – which meant a daily, lengthy commute from the suburbs. "So that was a commitment. But she is very artistic ... she has always been inspired by books, creative writing, drama, visual art. She went into music and she loved to dance. All the elements that she thrived on were there."

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Daughter Morgen, now 23, attended Elmwood, a private, all-girls school in Ottawa.

"Her learning needs were not well met in the public system. She was an extremely bright, well-behaved girl. If she was bored she never made a fuss, never expressed her boredom. That compliance element meant teachers didn't notice her and her needs."

By Grade 4 "we noticed a dramatic decline in her attitude. Her homework was coming home messier, more incomplete. When you see a decline in their work and their interest in learning, you get concerned and you look for alternatives."

Sharon Ann Cook, distinguished professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa, says gender is only one way to "sort" kids when it comes to choosing the right learning environment.

"There will be some boys who will prosper within a single-sex setting. Some girls will prosper. There will be others who will do better in a co-ed setting," she says. "We shouldn't assume gender trumps all other characteristics ... when there are a number of factors that cause children or adolescents or even adults to have difficulty in learning."

Prof. Cook says those factors include learning styles, culture, socio-economic class, home life, native language or sexual orientation. She says sorting a class by gender diminishes the importance of these other factors..

"It assumes all girls are going to be the same. All boys are going to be the same. We know that isn't so," Prof. Cook says. "There are vast differences within gender categories based on these other points of difference, and based on attitude and parenting models. The major downside is that [sorting by gender] simplifies education unduly and gives us the sense that we are catering to students by this one point of difference.

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"That is rarely the case. Within the female population there are dramatically different learning styles. Some of these girls won't do well with group work, for example. Others will. And there are some boys who do very well in group work."

Erin Clatney would agree. With four children, she is weighing her choices across a spectrum of learning paths, which include special needs, private single-sex and public co-ed.

"They are such completely different children," she says.

While one daughter attended a private girls' school, she feels her 11-year-old son wouldn't thrive in an equivalent education stream. He currently attends a public co-ed school.

"This works for Lucas, because he is communicative, he is social, he can focus. He toes the line, and he is probably easy to teach. It has a lot to do with who he is."

But she'll change paths if his needs change.

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"I would be motivated to put Lucas in a boys' school if he needed something his environment couldn't provide. It's hard to say what will work for him in the high school or middle school years."

Ann Cook cites research by Harvard University's Professor Carol Gilligan in the 1980s and '90s, which asserted girls need different kinds of education, particularly to avoid "dumbing down" or deferring to boys during puberty.

The theory goes that " there were certain times in a girl's life when a single-sex education would really benefit them, and other times when it didn't seem to be as critical," she explains.

That research saw the establishment of a number of single-sex classrooms within public school systems in the U.S. and some school boards in Canada, "in areas where girls didn't thrive – for example, computer studies, where girls almost always defer to boys, and mathematics and science education.

"So there were a number of examples where girls and boys were given separate instruction and charted.... The girls did better," Prof. Cook says. "As girls caught up in things like computer studies and began to edge out boys generally in international test scores, this was seen as relatively less needed."

Prof. Cook now feels there is renewed interest in gender-specific private school education over academic concerns for boys.

"After the turn of the century, a series of studies targeted boys as being in trouble. We know, for example, that the drop out rate for boys from secondary school has always been much higher than the drop out rate for girls. When you trace that back and look at skill deficits, you very often run into literacy and numeracy [problems] at the basis of why kids don't thrive in school and drop out."

While she cautions parents against choosing a school based on gender alone, she says it is one of many choices offered to Canadian parents.

"If a child isn't thriving in a typical Canadian classroom that's probably co-ed, what is the reason? If other skill sets are in place, and they don't have other learning disabilities, it may be the answer.

"The question parents have to ask themselves is, what appears to be the source of the problem? And if that source appears to be complicated by a co-ed classroom, I wouldn't wait five minutes to try out a single-sex classroom for my child."

Special to The Globe and Mail


The arguments for single-sex schools

  • Socializing factors can both complicate and undercut academic goals, a.k.a. “the dumbing down process.” There is less of that within school systems where girls don’t have to compete or impress boys around the age of puberty.
  • Where skill sets are slower to develop, as in literacy with boys, single-sex settings mean they are less likely to be intimidated by girls who are, generally speaking, fast trackers. Slicing the group by gender allows students to develop basic skills and confidence to move ahead.
  • Sorting students by gender allows teachers to tailor pedagogical approaches to that gender, e.g. group work. “We do an awful lot of group work in school,” says Professor Ann Cook. “Teachers will often report that girls are keener about group work than boys, and this seems to become more accented the older students get. It has to do with general socialization patterns; it may have to do with left brain/right brain proclivities on the part of the two genders. Group work is often seen by pedagogues as being more easily implemented and more effective with girls than it is with boys.”

The arguments for co-ed schools

  • Put simply: “Men and women have to get along. They need practice doing this and a co-ed education allows them to practice this.”
  • Sorting kids by gender alone ignores other factors which may be more important in choosing a learning path
  • Socialization is important: “The real chrysalis for democracy is to be found in a typical co-ed, state-supported public school system that we have in Canada,” Prof. Cook says. “As much as we would like to be living only with people who are like-minded and of the same class and the same persuasion, that’s not necessarily a good thing for any society. Certainly not a democratic one.”
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