Experts Use Bunnies To Argue For Separating Boys And Girls In School

Nov 22, 2013

Credit Regan McCarthy

A pair of Florida lawmakers want to test a theory that boys and girls might learn better if they’re taught in separate classrooms. So they’re filing a bill that would encourage schools to offer single-gender classrooms. But the proposal comes with quite a bit of controversy and confusion.

The Franklin County school district is one of the smallest and poorest in the state, with all of its kids eligible to get three free meals a day at school and just one campus to house all of its students, from preschool through 12th grade.

Nonetheless, taking a tour of the school with Superintendent Nina Marks can take some time as she stops to greet teachers and students. On our tour she asks coach and high school Athletics Director Mike Sweatt what he’d think about teaching a single-sex class.  

At first Sweatt said he might prefer co-ed classes, but after thinking, he said separating kids by their gender could have some definite benefits.

“In phys ed or even in the classroom, if I had a group of boys I would probably teach different in there than I would with a group of girls. I would probably teach different with the girl,” Sweatt said.

And that’s one of the reasons Rep. Manny  Diaz (R-Hialeah) said he wants to offer state money to schools that offer single-gender classes.

“You know there’s a lot of research out there that kind of indicates that boys and girls learn very differently and there’s social aspects within the classroom that can kind of be intimidating to one or the other,” Diaz said.

But Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education says it’s not that boys and girls learn differently. Here’s an example:

“A sixth grade teacher brought in a rabbit, a bunny, for the students see and to touch. And one of the girls said, ‘Oh, the bunny, it’s so cute, can I pet it? I want to pet it.’ And one of the boys said, ‘Oh yeah, I want to blow its brains out with a bazooka.’  And from the moment the boy said that, none of the other boys wanted to pet the bunny, because the gender lines had been drawn,” Sax said.

But bring that bunny into an all-boys classroom, Sax said, and you’ll see a different outcome.

“The teacher brought the bunny back to the all-boys classroom, and half the boys now wanted to pet the bunny,” Sax said.

So, Sax said in separate-gender classrooms, the goal isn’t to help kids learn differently, it’s more about asking them to do things they’ll want to do.

In Franklin County, Marks said that’s something she could be interested in—though she said it would take a lot of studying and talking to parents first.

“We would need a control group, and you’d have to put a lot of things in place, and it takes time to try to figure those things out and a staffing plan,” Marks said.

And given the size of Marks’ school, working out the logistics would be hard. For example, there are so few kids attending second grade in the county they have only two second grade classes – meaning there couldn’t be a boys' class, a girls' class and a co-ed class.

But Diaz said he wants the program to be flexible so small schools have the option to implement it in any grade that’s big enough, if not all at once.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said his group is keeping an eye on the bill, which he said doesn’t reflect the real world and could result in discrimination.

Follow Regan McCarthy on Twitter at @Regan_McCarthy.