A little more than a decade ago, a group of girls from St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School in Oakville, Ont., arrived at a FIRST Robotics competition in Mississauga and ran headlong into the type of gender stereotyping the school is working to overcome.
"Are you the cheerleaders for your team?" a group of boys from another school asked them.
They weren't. They quickly invited the offending boys to view a robot they had designed and built, which would go on to win an award at the event. In the intervening years, the private all-girls' school has encouraged students to participate in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), and they have brought home many awards, gaining international recognition.
Dorothy Byers, head of school at St. Mildred's, thinks the all-girl environment has contributed to this program's success. Ms. Byers, who was in the co-ed environment both as a teacher and administrator before coming to St. Mildred's, said having experience in both systems has shown her the difference.
"One of the things I noticed in co-ed classrooms was that it was the boys who had their noses in test tubes, while the girls were sitting back writing the notes," she says. "The boys had their hands up and were answering the questions and the girls tended to defer a little bit to their male counterparts. And that was something that always irked me, as a woman."
As one of the first female administrators in her area, she wanted to change things.
"I felt we needed to do everything we could to encourage girls to find their feet and develop confidence. To really take an equal space … to be confident in speaking out and having an opinion and sharing that opinion."
While data is scarce in Canada to gauge the outcome of segregating genders, some studies elsewhere of both private and public schools have shown that girls are more confident in traditionally male areas such as science and math when they don't have to compete with boys.
Ms. Byers notes that St. Mildred's, which has 550 students from preschool to Grade 12, nurtures young women who are comfortable in leadership roles in many areas. Recently, for instance, a group of them attended an environmental conference in Ecuador and met with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore to get his advice on initiatives they were developing and supporting.
"It's the greatest joy I have," she says, "watching these little girls grow up into amazingly confident young women."
She agrees with the thinking that girls learn differently than boys. They like to talk and collaborate more, she believes. And they want to understand, to a greater degree, the relevance in the real world of what they learn in class.
Ms. Byers also believes girls benefit from the lack of distraction inherent in a co-ed environment. They can focus more on their studies and less on the latest fashion trends or whether they are having a good hair day.
"Whether they look pretty or not is not foremost on their mind," she says.
Heather Blair, a professor in the education faculty at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has explored the issue in the public schools and believes there is a case to be made for same-sex classrooms, especially as a bridge to high school.
She has found that boys tend to take up more teacher time than girls and that girls can benefit if they don't have to compete with boys.
A sensitivity to gender differences can also benefit boys in the classroom, she says, especially in areas of traditional strength for girls, such as literacy and communication.
Dr. Blair followed a group of boys over several years and found their interests often diverged from what their teachers thought of as literary pursuits.
"There are huge differences in terms of reading and writing preferences between boys and girls," she says, with boys more interested in non-fiction and action, adventure and fantasy genres. Teachers, she believes, should play to the strengths of boys' traditional interests, while at the same time encouraging them to explore other areas.
"We need to pay attention to how children develop literacy as gendered people," she says. "I think there is a place for single-gendered schools, particularly in early adolescence, but I'm not sure it is necessary the rest of the time."
Neil Webber, president and chairman of Webber Academy, a private school in Calgary that has 925 students, says there may be some validity to arguments supporting same-sex schools, but he believes there is a crucial downside: They don't prepare students as well for the real world.
"The real advantage of co-ed schools is the development of social skills," he says. "I think that it is good for youngsters to be mixing and talking and discussing things with both genders involved because in junior high and high school, especially, there is a fair bit of discussion about gender issues."
His school tries to balance as much as possible the number of girls and boys in its classes, which run from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. Each group tends to score about the same on provincially mandated tests throughout their schooling.
"I've read many things about the advantages of single-gender schools," he says, "with girls doing better in math and sciences, for instance, but we don't really see that."
That's not to say, however, that he discounts the idea of gender-based differences in behaviour. Particularly in the earlier grades, he notes, girls tend to want to please their teachers more than boys and boys sometimes have a harder time sitting still at their desks.
But those differences can be worked with in co-ed environments, he believes, if teachers are sensitive and aware.
Scientific answers to questions about the benefits of single-gender education are hard to come by. But here are some generalities based on a summary of studies done in English-speaking countries going back decades:
In Canada, studies of academic results of gender segregation in the public schools have been inconclusive, although teachers and students report that same-sex classes tend to be positive environments.
Research in several other countries has shown that boys tend to dominate during hands-on activities and other classroom interactions, which can have a negative effect on girls' achievement.
It has also been shown that girls might feel uncertain about selecting traditionally male areas of study, such as math, physics and chemistry, and might feel conflicted about achieving their potential in those areas.
Boys from single-sex schools have shown a higher performance level in subjects such as English and modern languages in some studies.
Preoccupation with appearance and dating can detract from a focus on academic achievement, especially among girls.
Single-sex schools tend to have the most benefit for lower ability or economically disadvantaged boys and girls, rather than those in schools with "selective intake."
Some studies show no difference in academic outcomes or subject choice when students are segregated.
Both sexes in co-educational environments tend to be more positive about their schools, and say that the co-ed experience helps them to relate to the opposite sex.
Source: Emer Smyth, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin