It’s widely found that men and women communicate differently at work, at home, and in everyday life, and this applies in classrooms as well. However, how do the dynamics change in a same-sex learning environment – and is this difference good or bad? Are same-sex classrooms education’s solution to differences in gender communication, or can we improve how co-ed classrooms work instead? Although gender communication is different depending on whether a classroom is co-ed or single-sex, it’s important to create a more equal learning environment, especially in co-ed classrooms.
So how does gender communication differ between single-sex and co-ed classrooms? It actually isn’t as simple as the “boys talked more and didn’t realize it” conclusion. In their study, Foster and Newman-Baker found that beyond the amount they were talking (or not), the specific language girls used was very different to the boys: “Girls also tend to use more qualifying language, such as ‘I think’ or ‘maybe,’ when participating in mixed-sex discussions, while boys are more likely to make declarative statements and use stronger language”.1
Boys’ communication was more assertive, while girls’ was not. Boys were also “more likely to interrupt, and more likely to challenge their teacher”2 , again displaying more “aggressive” communication styles. This type of communication resonated with teachers, who then called on boys more. 3 As a result, girls participated more in “cooperative learning experiences,” such as group projects, “where they have greater control over the conversation”,4 potentially because their teachers were not present.This type of behavior can distract students very easily. It is common that boys do interrupt more and get called out, this is turn, affects the other students and their ability to learn in a stimulating environment.
Meanwhile, in same-sex classrooms, the dynamics were very different. Binder and Wood found that communication styles did not change, but instead one dominated: “In girls’ classes, discussion and interaction were used as strategies for promoting learning, whereas in boys’ classes, competition and a focus on performance and grades were more prevalent”.5 Each gender was still communicating in the way they generally preferred – women more cooperatively and men more aggressively – but without the presence of the other gender, the classrooms saw different results. Interestingly, the study found that both genders could benefit from same-sex classrooms, free to explore their interests “without the influence of gender stereotypes and expectations”.6 While same-sex classrooms have its benefits due to similar behaviors from peers, boys need girls and girls need boys. It’s important for mixed-gender interactions to happen at a young age so that as kids develop they have the ability to communicate well with anybody.
Despite these benefits, experts are not so quick to proclaim same-sex education the solution to gender communication problems in the classroom. Armor argues that “Single-sex education may not prepare students for the real-world gender dynamics they will encounter outside of school, where they will need to navigate mixed-gender environments and work collaboratively with people of different genders”.7 As Binder and Wood’s article showed, communication does not “normalize” in same-sex environments – it only heightens the differences in communication styles and allows one to dominate freely. Once students enter a co-ed university or the workplace, the same issues seen in co-ed classrooms would most likely arise again – and even more, students would be unprepared for it.
With this in mind, how can co-ed learning environments acknowledge gender differences in communication and adjust for them? The first step is accepting that the differences exist, and that they themselves may carry a bias for “male” styles of communication. Foster and Newman-Baker in fact agree that teachers’ own communication style can positively affect this issue: they suggest “being aware of their own behavior and language” and “modeling gender-inclusive language…for their students” 8 Beyond communication, teachers can also switch up their classroom formats to make space for girls’ communication styles: “group work or small group activities, which may be particularly beneficial for girls”. 9
Overall, studies on this topic agree that gender communication differences are present even in the classroom, but they point to the conclusion that same-sex education may not be the best solution for this issue. Instead, unlearning biases, incorporating more inclusive communication, and adjusting classroom activities will go farther in allowing both genders (and their communication styles) to thrive in harmony.
In multi-gendered classrooms, it is necessary for students to learn to interact with each other but also be able to collaborate with the opposite gender successfully. In classrooms, it is specifically important that teachers know how to navigate and provide experiences that will encourage open communication, teamwork, and inclusivity. For example, a helpful way to make the students learn from each other would be to split a class into small groups and give an assignment that requires different skills.
Modern-day schools should find a way to incorporate more controversial topics into their everyday discussions. Discussions that focus on gender equality can challenge the stereotypes society once had. However, the most important thing is having a teacher willing to encompass those values and use the appropriate language.
Parents that have older kids in schools should also be willing to have difficult conversations at home, having open conversations with older children really helps them be more open with others and more inclusive. Creating an inclusive, safe environment is a team effort involving teachers, parents, and the students themselves, doing it correctly can result in a positive learning experience for everyone.
gender and learning