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The Right Road

Single-Gender Schools Create Focused Learning Environments

While co-education is more common in modern society, many independent schools carve out a valuable niche by serving either boys or girls. The best of these schools keep up with cutting-edge research about the differences between male and female brains and create classrooms and extracurricular programs that empower students to reach beyond their comfort zones and thrive. 

For decades, best-selling author and educational leader Michael Gurian has been highlighting how the differences between male and female brains influence learning. While scientists continue to question and debate how human brains work, a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania added more support for Gurian’s approach: When analyzing MRI brain scans of nearly 1,000 people, scientists observed that a higher percentage of the connections made in male brains stayed within either the left or the right hemisphere, while a higher percentage of connections made in female brains crossed between the two hemispheres. Scientists theorize that these differences relate to focus and multitasking. Hormones also play a role. In general, male brains respond to stress starting from the limbic system, which is the “fight or flight” portion of the brain. In general, female brains respond to stress starting from lobes that emphasize verbal mediation. 

Gender-based brain differences occur on a spectrum, and should be understood as overall trends rather than as predictive for specific individuals. Single-sex schools apply the generalities of such research to focus on what works best for each gender. Boys’ schools may incorporate more movement into the school day, take time for a ‘brain break’, and channel the urge for competition. Girls’ schools may create space for working collaboratively, for developing leadership skills, and for deep exploration of nontraditional areas such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programming.

In single-sex schools for either gender, many parents anticipate that the experience will be worthwhile because there are ‘fewer distractions’.  While this is potentially true, a more powerful factor is that in these environments, all students participate in everything.  Boys who may never have chosen to take an art class may discover they enjoy ceramics, or writing for the school newspaper, or playing in the bell choir.  Girls may discover they excel at math, robotics, or technology.  Instead of adhering to gender stereotypes, single-sex schools may, in fact, provide the freedom, security, and trust for students to engage in a broader spectrum of activities—and that bolsters confidence and builds self-esteem.

Some people worry that single-gender schools hinder “normal” social growth because both genders must eventually live together in “the real world.” What most don’t realize, however, is that these schools regularly have brother or sister schools to nurture boy-girl interactions. These partnerships go beyond the contrived school dances to include community service, theater, and other activities in which students collaborate toward a goal. 

As a proud graduate of The Madeira School, a girls’ boarding school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I have personal as well as professional experience with the potential of single-sex schools. When identifying schools of interest, I recommend that my candidates investigate at least one such school. This is one more exciting opportunity for students to think deeply about what kind of educational environment will suit them best.

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, ranging from day schools to boarding schools and from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for planning across different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at audrey@thebertramgroup.com