Posted by: bridget | 1 March 2008

Single-sex, single-minded insanity

Fundamental differences in brain structure v. different social expectations?  The NY Times reports that single-sex education is on the rise.  One group (mostly male, go figure) claims that boys and girls have fundamentally different brains, which necessitates different learning environments.  Another group claims that segregating students results in different social expectations.  Dr. Leonard Sax, who believes that differences between the sexes are hard-wired into the brain, based his conclusions on such things as different tolerances for scent.

Let’s be real, people: ability to smell mold is not a driving factor in how well someone understands dynamic modeling.  If this were really an issue about teaching people based on their individual brain structure – with  no regards to social or gender factors – we would test every kid and sort them into classrooms based on their own, personal learning styles, not group membership.  This blogger, for one, would be horrifically bored in a classroom with singing and talks about “The Sisterhood” – give her something to build, please!  To put it another way:

Giedd suggests the same is true when educators use gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids. Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well. Says Giedd, “There are just too many exceptions to the rule.”

Bingo.  A lot of the so-called “sex differences” are slight distinctions between the medians in distributions.  Below is a picture of two bell curves, one offset from the other by a standard deviation:


Although a standard deviation’s difference is a relatively large distinction, statistically speaking, approximately one in six members of each group are closer to the other group than they are to their own.  In reality, the differences which drive sex-segregated research are minute:  

Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent a fair amount of energy examining the original research behind Sax’s claims. In Corso’s 1959 study, for example, Corso didn’t look at children; he looked at adults. And he found only between one-quarter and one-half of a standard deviation in male and female hearing thresholds. What this means, Liberman says, is that if you choose a man and a woman at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the woman’s hearing will be more sensitive and about 4 in 10 that the man’s hearing will be more sensitive.

For those visual learners out there, here are two bell curves, separated by 1/5th of a standard deviation (if anyone can dig up a visual for 1/2 to 1/4th, please post in comments):


Oh, wow – that’s reason enough to sex-segregate classrooms!  Let’s make sure the girls talk about their feelings and their friends while boys prepare for world domination.



  1. Although to the degree I understand the info you’ve presented isn’t segregated classrooms usually proposed for other reasons. I was under the impression and in support of segregatingsome classes to : a) assure the group is treated equally. I’ve read reports that state the teachers either consciously or sub consciously treat the sexes different. b)Sanity and safety.This helps promote a positive learning environment.What I mean is the lack of peer pressure along sexist lines. Anyway key to my thinking is the “some classes” part. I believe schooling from kindergarten to grad school is as much about socializations and other realities as it is “book learning”.

  2. Oh, exactly. I was addresssing the nonsense that boys and girls need totally different curricula – action for the boys, friends and cooking for the girls. Boys get to make things that blow up; girls get to use chemistry to design better make-up.

    There is some good stuff in that article about how teachers can talk to girls about the sexual imagery in poetry without boys snickering and making fun of the girls that they hooked up with over the weekend, how boys and girls in single-sex schools do better on objective measurements and have better relationships with the opposite sex.

    I object to the idea that minor, statistically insignificant differences between the sexes should be used for this.

  3. I attended Mississippi University for Women, where I majored in chemistry and math. I’m convinced that I had a very different experience than I would have had at a coed school. You can’t take a back seat to boys if there aren’t any boys to take a back seat to. Everything in the classrooms and the labs was for us girls to understand, figure out, take care of. We had to step up to the plate. I think going to a single-sex school was very good for me. However, I was raised to be a nice Southern girl in a way that girls aren’t now (a mixed blessing).

    I know our teachers liked us. The male science and math teachers obtained films of classic science fiction movies to show us on Friday nights and made popcorn for us.

    But you are absolutely right about not applying statistics inappropriately. I had an online argument once with a person who insisted that because I am from Mississippi, I am “less likely” to be literate. Once you’re dealing with an individual, I told him, statistics go out the window. The fact that we were having this argument in a written format, which required literacy on my part, meant nothing to him. He liked dealing with people through group stereotypes because, he said, it saved time.

  4. Laura,

    Once you’re dealing with an individual, I told him, statistics go out the window.

    Exactly! This is true of everything – the practice of medicine, education, dating, child-rearing.

    There are also a lot of people who totally misinterpret “less likely.” If you look at the last graph I posted, you would see that the green group is “less likely” than the purple group to be on the right-hand side of the bell curve. Yet, nearly half of the greens are to the right of the median of the purples. Do we deny that those exist?


    Okay, back to single-sex education. Perhaps I should have stated this a bit more clearly, but I have huge problems with justifying it on the grounds that “men and women are different; girls need to talk about their feelings while boys need to be active and prepare to be CEOs.” The problems with that are innumerable, but I’ll start with being self-fulfilling prophecy, sexist, non-functional (in terms of misclassifying a huge number of individuals), and creating the grave error of treating individuals as members of their group – approbrious whether it be in affirmative action or repression.

    Now, just because one justification is horrible doesn’t mean that the idea is bad. I personally like the idea of single-sex education, so long as the curricula are the same. Laura, if you were taking chemistry and math, you were bucking the stereotype of women as literate, verbal, non-math types. That’s what single-sex education should really do – which helps us to get the best mathematicians, scientists, and poets, regardless of sex, rather than cutting off our supply of ambition and talent.

  5. Those are brilliant graphs and a very smart explanation. Single-sex education may have merits, but the instant curricular differences are introduced it becomes a disaster. Teaching everyone the same things in sex segregated classrooms, for example, might have something to commend it. I’m not sure; as a longtime and incurable skeptic of classrooms, I prefer another way entirely.

  6. The meanest people in my school were girls.

    Sure, a segregated school would have meant fewer physical sexual attacks from boys, but it also would have eleminated the nice boys who were my support system.

    It was girls who started the rumor I was a lesbian, for instance. It was the girls who ridiculed me for not wearing make-up (forbidden by my parents), and boys who told me “you look fine without it”.

    I’m not sure that segregated classrooms would make anything easier for misfits, if that’s the goal.

    I totally agree that curricular diffierances based on sex are a silly idea.

    The problem with the school I went to was the “boys will be boys” attitude of the administration, and a general population with primitive attitudes about gender. Nobody thought a thing about a little game of “kiss-or-kill” on the playground, for instance. I remember a parent objecting to his little girl being chased down on the playground, tackled by a boy, and the told she had to kiss him or get punched.

    He was laughed off as “sensitinve” (we all know what that means) and someone told him it was just kids being kids. It being considered “normal” behavior by everyone around me, I remember also thinking “Just teach her to hit them first if she doesn’t want to be kissed OR punched.”

    Seems like the best solution I’ve seen is a well-communicated, clear and sensible policy on acceptable behavior with consistant enforcement, and parental support. It seems to have worked pretty well in our schools anyway.

  7. Sorry, I meant to say “It seems to have worked well in our KIDS schools anyway.” The schools my kids go to don’t seem to have nearly the problems that the ones I went to had, and the difference seems to ba a clear policy of what’s appropriate and what isn’t, and a sensible and consistent discipline scheme.

  8. Ian,

    What would that “other way” be? Facebook? (Kidding, kidding.)


    That is a horrible story.

    I dealt with some cattiness from the girls (who made fun of me for getting good grades and being an athlete), but the boys were worse – that was everything from grades to asking me if I was a lesbian because I was fourteen and had never had a boyfriend.

    I certainly don’t think that sex-segregated classrooms has to mean entirely different schools – you can get some social interaction if boys and girls are in the same building, eat lunch together, and join each other for the school band.

    Phys ed, for what it’s worth, is always much more fun when sex-segregated. I think, act, and play like a guy, but playing with the guys (and dealing with their sexism) is brutal. It seems as if the girls always managed to have fun when it was just us, whether in gym class or on the track team.

    “Just teach her to hit them first if she doesn’t want to be kissed OR punched.”

    We did fairly basic self-defence as part of one semester in phys ed. The boys did something else while the girls learned how to kick the butts of anyone who messed with them.

  9. Theo,

    It’s probably different experiences for different people. I’m not sure there’s any way to make the teen years not horrible sometimes.

    I guess I found another member of the “wrongfully outed as a lesbian club”!! :-)

    I thought I was the only one! Sorry to hear that you were there too.

  10. Teresa,

    Actually, my “twin” (college friend who apparently looks like me) and I were both lesbians freshman year and anorexic our sophomore year. See, neither of us dated until our late teen years, so we were obviously lesbians, right? Sophomore year anorexia – she dances, I’m a distance runner, so obviously any girl who participates in those activities and is not a complete chunk is anorexic, right? (Never mind that athletes are less prone to obesity…..)

    High school would be much improved if people had something to do other than get up in each other’s business. Ditto law school….

  11. Theo,

    Well, I’m a busty, “fat” girl who can run 15+ miles, do fifty push-ups and do a 360 degree spinning tornado kick to someone’s head.

    So obviously I just sit on the couch all day stuffing chips into my mouth, and must be a “bull dyke” right?

    Likeing teh maths and being kind of into hunting doesn’t help either.


    Yeah. People can often be quite off in their assessments of others.

    I don’t usually mind, as long as violence doesn’t result. Unfortunately, people who will make judgements on whether or not you are gay will often go on to make judgements as to whether or not you deserve to live, or feel safe, or not be physically violated/threatened, or treated at all like a human being.

  12. It was the girls who were mean as snakes in my high school.

    Things were very different for my daughter. She went to a magnet school in Memphis that routinely graduates the highest number of National Merit scholars in Tennessee. Rather than being a big fish in a small pond, like me, she was a medium-sized fish in a big pond and that totally changed the dynamic. Plus, with so many smart kids, there were plenty of nerds, and nerds appreciate each other. She told me that she stood up in the cafeteria once or twice and shouted “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!” and sat down again to eat her lunch, and that her classmates thought that was pretty cool. Mine would have thought I’d lost my mind.

  13. Laura,

    That is so great! I love it.

  14. Teresa,

    I don’t think that “gay” ought to be used as an insult – in my world, it’s up there with “throws like a girl.”

    It seems as if the only sure-fire way to NOT be a lesbian in high school is to either find yourself a steady boyfriend by age 13.


    I love that! (Of course, I’m movie-illiterate, so I wouldn’t have gotten the joke until the past few months, but it’s still great. :) )

    She went to a magnet school in Memphis that routinely graduates the highest number of National Merit scholars in Tennessee. Rather than being a big fish in a small pond, like me, she was a medium-sized fish in a big pond and that totally changed the dynamic.

    There’s a lot of value to going to school with people who are not like you, as you have to get along with everyone in the world, but I think it does not compensate for the harm that a lot of people suffer.

  15. Theo, my husband and I decided to do for our daughter what my college math and science teachers did for me: to further her cultural enrichment by making sure she saw all those classic science fiction movies, from “Forbidden Planet” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to “Alien”. I wrote about that on my blog, and about the life lessons you can learn from those things. One thing she learned about the movies was that there’s always a babe. I think her favorite was “Andromeda Strain” because the “babe” in it is a fairly plain-looking middle aged woman who’s in the story not because she’s somebody’s daughter, wife, or girlfriend, but because she’s a biologist. There goes another stereotype.

  16. Theo,

    “There’s a lot of value to going to school with people who are not like you, as you have to get along with everyone in the world, but I think it does not compensate for the harm that a lot of people suffer.”

    I agree to both points.

    I think I got a lot of value out of going to the schools that I did, despite the hardship. It forced me to take stands on issues that otherwise, I might never have cared about because they didn’t affect me. It caused me to form close bonds with the handful of other liberals in the town, which continue on today. We would not normally have been friends if our survival didn’t depend on it. I’d say it was worth it…

    But of course, “worth it” is not a useful evaluation. I wouldn’t recommend traumatizing and emotionally torturing children to make them stronger, obviously. Being able to make value, joy and positivity come from adversity is a wonderful human trait…but I’d say the benefit comes from the trait, and not the adversity. My conservative relatives often criticize me for not creating adversity for my kids to “toughen them up”. The way I see it, adversity happens naturally, and there’s no need to create it! :-)


    You have laid out an excellent sci-fi curriculum! Is Blade Runner in there too? My 14 y/o is working his way through an Alfred Bester anthology right now, and naturally Babylon Five and Firefly are our mainstays in the television world.

  17. Laura,

    I’m movie-illiterate. I really hate romantic comedies (cute woman, gets married/finds boyfriend/understands that her life is not complete without LOVE) – and, let’s be honest, the gender roles portrayed in most movies is a little frustrating.

    It sounds like you’ve come up with a good movie curriculum, though! :)


    I agree. There’s other ways to teach the same lessons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: