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I just read this interesting article from the New York Times Magazine: Teaching Boys and Girls Separately, about experiments with single-sex education in public schools in the U.S.

I reject the essentializing of gender, the idea that all males behave one way and all females behave another way. Studies about gender and sex differences are inherently flawed: since people are always raised in a society with differentiated sex roles, there is no control group for testing sex differences.

On the other hand, in my (admittedly limited) experience as a teacher in school classrooms, it’s pretty easy to generalize about boys’ and girls’ behavior. When I was teaching eight-year-olds in St. Petersburg, I felt bad for the girls, who were sitting there quietly having their time wasted by the boys’ misbehavior. And we can all draw on our own growing-up experiences, I’m sure.

The article provides a lot of anecdotes about the benefits of single-sex teaching, which are believable. In one, it describes two different classrooms in the same grade in the same school, the boys’ one, with its cooler temperature, cooler colors, and active learning style, and the warmer, calmer girls’ classroom.

We can accept that different people have different learning styles. There may even be a relationship between behavior and sex, if not from biology then from society. But we also know that there are people who don’t conform to the stereotypes of their sex. Why do all boys have to go to the cool classroom and all the girls to the warm one? What about the boisterous girls and the sensitive boys? Can we not have schools where different learning styles are accomodated, but the children are actually divided by their learning style rather than by sex?

It seems to me that this is a way to achieve the supposed benefits of single-sex classrooms without being sexist. Sure, it’s faster and easier just to separate by sex than to actually evaluate each child, but would it really be so hard for a teacher to make a recommendation about learning style at the end of the first year of school, and give kids the option to switch classrooms later if the evaluation was inaccurate or they experienced some kind of temperment shift?

I wanted to write a letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine about this, but couldn’t figure out how to do it on the website, so you get this blog post instead. I’m looking forward to all the extra hits I get from using the word “sex” so much.

Thistles said:

Totally unrelated to your post but I was just reading an article in Mothering Magazine written by an American ex-pat in Sweden. She was writing about the attitude towards children and independence she found when living in Sweden. For example, when playing on the playground parents mostly hung back and watched. Little children were allowed to take their chances on climbing structures, etc. and parents would only intervene if it looked like bodily injury was imminent. Contrary to our American expectations, there were actually fewer injuries because children were encouraged to test out and practice their physical abilities.The more I read about that place, the more I wish we could live there. I know you’re not working in a preschool now but I wonder if you’ve noticed any difference in the attitudes around “doing things properly” versus “letting them work out how to do it” between Sweden, Russia, and the US?

The following are completely non-scientific and highly subjective observations.

One thing I noticed straightaway in Sweden is that kids in preschools wear helmets when they play outside. Just playing, not riding bikes or anything. It looks a little funny, but as a former preschool teacher I can say that it’s a good way to both protect kids from harm and protect the teachers from liability. In the preschool in St. Petersburg, the schoolyard contained all kinds of monkey bars and things that were simply not appropriate for small kids, and the only way we were able to deal with it was to yell at them all the time not to climb on them. Of course, that’s about the worst way to deal with it – it stresses out kids and teachers both to be scolding all the time. It would be much nicer to have them wear helmets and go at it.

As you said, I haven’t experienced Swedish preschool first hand, but I am observing a third-grade class in an elementary school for my Swedish Education System class. On the question of “doing things properly” vs. “letting them figure it out”, they are definitely on the latter end of the scale. I’m struck by how much of their work is pairwork or groupwork – very different from the US or what I observed in Russia. The kids really are encouraged to find things out for themselves, and more significantly, with each other. I haven’t seen first hand whether the same approach is taken in the preschool level, but I did read a book that said that in the Nordic courtries there is a lot of resistance to “teaching” at the preschool level. Rather, children are supposed to explore things for themselves.

The St. Petersburg preschool was quite the opposite, particularly with the drill-sergeant head teacher I worked with the second year. Every minute of the day was planned, with highly-structured lessons. Even when we had “free play” time, the children were supposed to play quietly and independently from one another, and they were taught to play with particular toys in very particular ways, and were scolded for playing with them wrong. Creativity was strongly discouraged. And when we played outside, we were supposed to be playing teacher-led structured games all the time, though I tried to avoid doing that whenever possible, feeling that they were herded and scolded and told what to do the whole rest of the day, and they should actually have some time to do what they wanted and interact with each other on their own terms. But ours was a special private preschool with specific educational goals and claims made to parents about how much their kids were going to learn, so is not representative of Russian preschool in general.

As for family life rather than school life, from what I’ve seen of kids and parents out in public in Sweden, kids are often allowed to roam around a bit, as long as they’re in view of their parents and not doing anything dangerous. Parents seem quite patient and tolerant.

In Russia, kids don’t seem to be allowed to roam around so much (but there my fieldwork was performed in a large urban area :-), but parents don’t seem to scold their kids in public as much as American parents, and kids seemed better behaved. I think the American practice of saying “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that” all the time actually backfires, because eventually kids start to ignore these admonishments, and then they don’t pay attention when it’s really important.

So, the short answer to your question is that, from what I’ve seen, Swedes seem to be pretty into letting kids figure things out for themselves both in school and in families, Russian families seem to be pretty mellow but Russian schools are highly (overly) structured, and, well, my American school experience was pretty highly structured, and I don’t even want to talk about my family in this regard, but let’s just say it wasn’t healthy.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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