CoeducationBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Reading about Ateneo de Manila’s 40th anniversary of being coeducational reminded me of how old I am. On a play of the phrase “east is east and west is west,” at the time my sister and I were in the schools on Katipunan, it was “Ateneo is for boys and Maryknoll is for girls, and never shall the twain meet” (at least not openly).
Forty years after Ateneo opened its university to women, their high school and grade school still remain exclusively male. Maryknoll, now Miriam, also opened its college to men although I understand the women still greatly outnumber the men. But Miriam is going to outdo Ateneo soon with a new campus in Nuvali (Canlubang, Laguna) with coed campuses for grade and high school, not too far from another Jesuit school, Xavier, which is also coed or rather co-divisional (more on this later) for its grade school. (Xavier San Juan remains for boys only.)
The debates over coeducation have revolved around different issues from moral ones (a fear of combustible raging hormones) to learning styles and academic achievement.
The gender divide in learning goes way back in time. In pre-industrial societies, learning tends to be sex-segregated, following the gender division of labor. You still see that in our rural agrarian areas—where the boys go off with older boys and men to the fields, while very young girls learn to care for their siblings and help with household chores.
That gender divide is still found in our urban areas, and is reflected in school curricula, especially if the schools are exclusively male or female. Boys’ schools for example rarely offer opportunities to learn a musical instrument, while girls’ schools might have limited sports. Even in coed systems, such as in our public schools, there will be some segregation for subjects following the “boy-girl” stereotypes.
The gender divide is coming down slowly, mainly in terms of allowing girls to “intrude” into male domains like playing football. I see less progress moving in the other direction, sometimes with more complicated gender configurations. For example, boys (and their parents) stay away from volleyball, which they see as a sport only for girls—and male gays.
I looked at education journals and found that in developed countries, the debates have centered on academic achievement, with the assumption that girls are at a disadvantage in mixed-sex schools because boys are more aggressive or assertive in class, and because teachers themselves tend to favor the males. The result is that males tend to do better in various subjects, particularly Math and Science.
Because of those findings, there have been many experiments in these coed schools where certain classes, especially for Math, would be segregated by sexes. The terms used for this system include “SSI” (single sex instruction) and co-divisional. These experiments have been monitored and analyzed carefully and generally, the results do show that girls do better in Math with SSI or co-divisional systems.
But these findings have only led to more debates on whether the extra effort is worth it because the improvements are not usually that significant, and yet require added expenses because of the need for added classrooms and teachers.
It has also been pointed out that if boys do better than girls in Math, it is not because of a biological difference but because of differences in the school and teaching culture.
That point about school culture could not be better proven than in the Philippines, where in our public schools, all of which are coed, girls outperform the boys in all subjects: Reading, Math, Science. That does not mean Filipino boys have inferior intelligence “genes”; the problem again is with the teaching culture. Unlike western schools, our schools favor girls for many reasons: Most teachers are female, subjects have very little content that appeals to boys, and our broader culture undervalues academic achievement as “unmanly.” It’s not surprising that drop-out rates are higher for boys than for girls, and we now face a serious crisis where nationwide, males have lower educational attainment than females. (There is, incidentally, a similar trend in the United States, especially in low-income communities.)
Coed or not, the education of boys needs to be improved by tackling culture itself, in terms of the way we raise our sons to appreciate reading and academic life. That means revisiting many of our textbooks and curricula. I was close to despair seeing my son’s social studies book with several pages devoted to Manny Pacquiao as a great Filipino.
What about sex and the sexes? Opponents of coeducation paint dire pictures of boys pawing the girls. Opponents of same-sex schools on the other hand claim the boys end up pawing the boys, and girls, girls.
Let’s learn from Plato, who centuries ago advocated coeducational systems, saying this was the best environment for boys and girls to end up as “comrades.” I couldn’t agree more. Generally, in coeducational systems the classmates often end up more like brothers and sisters, developing a kind of “incest taboo” and not courting each other. The “other sex” is demystified, and relationships are more respectful.
Coed schools do not operate on the assumption that boys and girls are exactly the same. There are real differences that have to be taken into account, some of which sometimes translate into parental fears. For example, won’t boys be too rough and bully the girls? I doubt it; in fact, in public schools I sometimes see girls ganging up to bully the boys they find rather dumb.
Seriously, there’s something about coeducational systems where both sexes do challenge each other to do better. That can mean boys reining themselves in, sometimes because they do want to impress the girls (or a girl). And for all the talk about boys being rowdy, they do have a more philosophical and relaxed attitude to life, which can be good for their female classmates.
The tide is changing and exclusively boys or exclusively girls schools will dwindle and as that happens, it is important to document the experiences of the different types of schools, and to pick up the strong points.
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