As veteran second grade teachers, we have seen first-hand that boys and girls learn differently. The past five years of research supports this observation, showing that while gender is hard-wired, the ability to learn is not. Boys and girls develop certain areas of learning at different times, and while they eventually reach the same place, there are achievement gaps during certain periods of development. Through our research and experiences, we have been able to identify these developmental differences, and we have found that single-sex classrooms can help close the achievement gaps that often occur between boys and girls. 

Our school, the Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence in Waterloo, Iowa, began offering the option of either single-sex or coed classrooms in 2003. The Cunningham School serves a diverse population of African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian students, with 85% of the 400 students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.  In addition to single-sex classrooms, our school veers from traditional public schooling with a continuous year calendar, staff and student uniforms, and an early start time.

With the assistance of Dr. Leonard Sax, an expert in the field of single-sex teaching, and Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, an expert in the field of raising African American academic achievement, we have been implementing a second grade all-girls class and a second grade all-boys class for the past four years. We have seen great results with our single-sex classes.

How Can Single-Sex Classrooms Help Students?

  • They help close the achievement gap between the sexes.
  • They can improve academic achievement and help raise standardized tests scores.
  • They can help enhance the self-esteem and self-worth of students, improving the learning environment and the community.

Different Learning Styles for Boys and Girls

In our classrooms, we have seen boys and girls thrive with different types of instruction and in different environments.

  • Boys can think better if they are able to move around.
  • Boys respond positively to team competition in academics.
  • Boys do well with high stakes tests, time limits, and cooperative learning.
  • Girls need unconditional positive reinforcement.
  • Girls need to be encouraged to be risk-takers when performing academic tasks.
  • Girls respond well to group work, real-life applications of their lessons, and relaxing music.

Great Results in the Boys’ Classroom

To expect a second grade boy to sit still in his chair all day at school is not only unproductive, it’s detrimental to his learning potential. Given the opportunity to move around in a structured environment, boys are allowed to explore their boundaries and stay engaged in the learning process. Based on this knowledge, we have incorporated active academic games like Spelling Baseball, Math Basketball, and Reading for Football Yards. To give you a sense of what these games are like, Math Basketball consists of solving problems individually in order to get to shoot for team points. Reading for Football Yards has boys working individually through 100 yards of books, ten yards per book, in order to score field goals for their teams.

Sometimes it’s hard to get boys to read, but we have found that boys will develop a love for all literature if they begin by reading books they prefer. Non-fiction stories that involve boy-friendly themes and strong male characters are popular, and we have been successful in using these types of books as an entry point to other learning exercises. Other strategies that have worked well for boys, in our experience, include graphic organizers, team-competitive learning, and opportunities for immediate feedback.  Teachers often struggle with discipline in the classroom, but we have found that discipline problems are not an issue when boys are actively engaged in decision-making and in their learning.

Great Results in the Girls’ Classroom

We feel that girls need to be encouraged to be risk-takers when performing academic tasks. We have the girls work collaboratively in groups, and we place the natural leaders with girls who are less dominant. During math lessons, we use this strategy to promote positive support within the group. All girls can then experience what it is like to be a leader while also receiving positive feedback from their partners. In small groups, girls can work on and complete tasks together in a non-threatening and productive way, while in larger groups their accomplishments can be celebrated. It has been amazing to see how the girls encourage one another to accomplish the task at hand. Being able to count on one another, both academically and socially, has been a key to their academic success.

The benefits from being in a same-sex classroom have carried over into their everyday lives as well. Girls have been doing more than just excelling in math and science; they’ve taken ownership of their own learning experiences. The girls’ renewed self-confidence has helped them to achieve in extra-curricular areas like music, gym, and art. Some of our quietest girls started volunteering for music solos and girls who had never shown interest in extra-curricular activities began participating more in and out of the classroom. 

From Our School to Yours

Our overall experience with single-sex classrooms has been positive, and other schools in our district have expressed interest in adopting the format as well. We feel it is possible for all public school students to have the opportunity to thrive in a single-sex classroom. We have seen it work in our classrooms and believe it can work in classrooms around the country.

Annette Duncan is a second grade all-boys teacher, and Amy Schmidt is a second grade all-girls teacher. Both are doctoral candidates at the University of Northern Iowa.