Gender Politics in the Classroom

There’s an issue of debate in education that doesn’t come up too often here in India, but has been running since my own school days and probably earlier – are there good reasons why boys and girls should learn in single sex environments instead of co-educational?

At first, one can be tempted to believe this is a pretty simple debate. However, like the onion, it’s one of those debates that you find contains ever more complex layers as you ‘unwrap it’. The issues and the debate get embroiled in scientific research, pseudo research and issues of gender politics and history.

I believe the fact that the debate goes on at all is yet another reflection of people’s underlying sense of disquiet that education ‘isn’t working’. The result is that people start to search for alternatives. This is the case especially for boys, who worldwide are under-performing markedly (at least in the ways that education currently chooses to measure and assess ‘performance’).

The challenge is that once you start to discuss pros and cons one is very quickly sucked in to issues about gender stereotyping, historical discrimination and suspicions of ‘hidden agendas’.

Here’s a very well-written article from Newsweek that deals in a quite unbiased way with the key arguments:

Newsweek Article on classroom Segregation

One aspect not touched on, but i believe a very genuine concern, is the increased aggression levels in ‘boys only’ environments. When i was younger, growing up mostly in UK, I well remember that one of the arguments used most strongly in favour of co-education was ‘humanising’ the classroom, that mixing the students they would bring a positive balancing (ying and yang) effect.

Today, i think there’s another newer but vitally important issue. Family sizes have got smaller. The numbers of children with an other-sex sibling have reduced and continue to go down. If these children are then in single sex classrooms, or more extreme, single sex schools this creates a very artificial growing up environment where contact with the other sex is almost non-existent. When they finally come together at a later age, fixed gender ideas can be even more intractable than otherwise.

I would be fascinated to know the views of Indian parents, students and educators. is this a debate we should be having here or should we just leave it to those in the west hung up over gender politics and carry on as we are?

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4 Responses

  1. I absolutely agree with you about nuclear families and the perils of bringing up a child totally insulated from healthy interaction with the opposite sex. My son is 11 years now but until about 3 years ago, I had him invite regularly, 6-7 female friends only from school for a playdate at home. Of course now he wouldnt be seen dead, leave alone fraternising with one. Also, the fondness for him of the younger female siblings of his friends’ only make matters worse for him. 🙂 It is funny when he says that girls with whom he grew up playing with, are now friends only at home and not at school.

    Discrimination, stereo-typing, mal-adjustment, abusive behaviour are all the result of such insular upbringing.

  2. Here’s an interesting perspective on the Indian choices from a Bangalore parent:
    http://bhavnasrandommusing.blogspot.com/2010/07/co-ed-classrooms-work-in-india.html

  3. After reading the Newsweek article, I’m wondering if some of the girls’ issues might possibly be tempered by switching back to single-sex schools. For example, if you’re not competing (even subconsciously) with your classmates for the attentions of the boys, would you be less likely to fall prey to anorexia or even an unhealthily early introduction to sex?
    Of course, this is just me thinking aloud. My almost-6- year-old son is in a co-ed school and I’m pretty sure that’s the same way we’ll go with the younger boy as well. If nothing else, they’ll figure out that their mother is just a normal female-of-the-species and not an alien from Mars.

    • Sadly, I fear that the pressure to be ‘slim’, to look right, to wear the ‘right clothes’ etc. doesn’t come from boys, but from other girls. Peer pressure can be a pretty menacing thing.

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