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Gender-segregated science classrooms.

Hilary Bates hbates at amgen.com
Tue May 30 19:20:07 EST 1995


I've followed this thread with great interest. My reply is, like most of
the others, highly personal, but I'd like to throw in my $0.02 (or two
penn'orth, as they say where I come from).

I was educated in the UK, at two all-girls' high schools, the first in an
affluent area and selective, with extremely high standards, the second a much
smaller school with a higher-percentage intake over a much smaller catchment 
area, and with correspondingly lower standards. I opted for sciences at about 
the time my family moved from one area to the other, when I was 15. I ended up
taking A-level chemistry, biology and maths. but dropping physics (which
would have been useful for my subsequent chemistry degree) because I disliked
it. Why did I dislike it? Because I had a poor teacher - a young man straight
out of teacher training college who was intimidated by a class full of 13-year-
old girls. Better teaching at a later stage was not enough to overcome my
dislike. So there was a gender bias straight away, even in a girls' school.

When proceeding to college level, I chose Chemistry (because I liked it
and had been encouraged) and chose a women's college at a collegiate
university.
This suited me; I liked the intellectually stimulating atmosphere in the
mixed classes, but hated the competitive feeling, and it was a relief to
get back to the women-only teaching in college, where I did not perceive a
need to compete. This may only have been my perception of the situation, but
I was pathologically shy at college age and would not have spoken up in a
mixed group if my life had depended on it. (Then again, that may have been
a direct result of having been at a girls' school!)

I am aware of a number of studies which have shown, in general, that boys
achieve better results in mixed classes and girls achieve better results
in single-sex classes at the junior high level. There is certainly a place
for some segregation, perhaps for part of the teaching, if this can be
arranged. While I agree whole-heartedly with those who have pointed out that
school is about more than learning academic subjects, I am also pragmatic
enough to recognise that some otherwise-able girls _are_ put off by the
attitude of boys (or less-able girls), and to believe that if a bit of 
imbalance encourages girls to pursue science in the absence of jeering from 
the boys, it can't do any harm.

I think a stronger point is made by those who advocate 'streamed' (i.e.
ability-segregated) teaching. Streaming is used a great deal in the UK,
and (again generalising) both boys and girls generally do better in
streamed classes. This is a much more realistically achievable form of
segregation and would help more students than 'just' potential female
physicists/mathematicians/engineers.

Hope this isn't too convoluted; I've just got back from the UK and
I'm still jet-lagged!

Hilary Bates
hbates at amgen.com




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