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Single-Sex Education and the Brain

Abstract

Of the various rationales for sex-segregated education, the claim that boys and girls should be taught in separate classrooms because their brains differ is arguably the weakest. Existing neuroscience research has identified few reliable differences between boys’ and girls’ brains relevant to learning or education. And yet, prominent single-sex school advocates have convinced many parents and teachers that there exist profound differences between the “male brain” and “female brain” which support the ubiquitous, but equally unfounded belief that “boys and girls learn differently” (Gurian et al. 2001; Sax 2005b; James 2007, 2009; Kaufmann 2007). Educators who cite brain or hormonal research as evidence for boys’ and girls’ different pedagogical needs are often misusing or misconstruing a small number of studies, when the complete data are far more equivocal and of doubtful relevance to classroom instruction. Gender differences in hearing, vision, and autonomic nervous function are modest, with large overlap between boys’ and girls’ measures. Similarly, studies of the neural basis of learning do not support the premise that boys and girls master reading, calculation, or other academic skills differently. Boys and girls have differing interests, but their basic cognitive, emotional and self-regulatory abilities vary far more within each gender than between the average boy and girl. Beyond the issue of scientific misrepresentation, the very logic of segregating children based on inherent anatomical or physiological traits runs counter to the purpose and principles of education.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Peggy Signorella, Diane Halpern, Mark Liberman, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript.

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Eliot, L. Single-Sex Education and the Brain. Sex Roles 69, 363–381 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0037-y

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Keywords

  • Sex difference
  • Schooling
  • Learning
  • Sensory
  • Hormone
  • Stress