General Articles

Co-Educational Learning Environments Improve Learning, Are Gender-Transformative


Sarah D. Sparks, "Scholars Say Pupils Gain Social Skills in Coed Classes," Education Week online (2012).

Recent educational research provides evidence that co-ed learning environments help all children to achieve academically and socially. Education Week reviewed the work of several prominent researchers to see what trends are emerging when elementary-school age children are confronted in the classroom with adults' expectations about gender.[1] The findings of Lise S. Eliot, Erin E. Pahlke, Rebecca S. Bigler, and Laura D. Hanish provide evidence with implications for sexuality education classrooms.[2]

 Key Findings:
"While children of both sexes often play together as toddlers, by the end of kindergarten they spend only 9 percent of their playtime with children of the other sex."[3]

In a meta-analysis of studies of mathematics and reading comprehension involving over 7 million children in grades K-11, researcher Janet Hyde found "no solid evidence that boys and girls actually learn differently."[4]

A study of preschoolers and fifth graders in Arizona State University's Sanford Harmony Program has found that "students who participated in [a mixed-gender] buddy matching and social curriculum were more socially competent, less aggressive, less exclusionary, and showed better social skills toward both boys and girls."[5]

"If you said to your 1st grade classrooms, 'Good morning, whites and Latinos; let's have the Latinos get your pencils,' what would happen is you would go to federal prison … Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, and, of course, you can do this routinely with gender."[6] This quote by U. Texas Psychology researcher Rebecca Biggler illustrates the power of gender-role expectations to determine learning outcomes for children in our nation’s classrooms.

Gender is a significant aspect of identity which is learned starting at birth. Gender can be a source of celebration and pride, but can also be a source of distraction and limitation for young learners when confronted with adults' expectations of 'appropriate' gender behavior. The four researchers whose work is summarized by Education Week provide evidence that social and academic learning is enhanced when gender distinctions are de-emphasized.

Although the researchers do not examine sexuality education specifically, the field needs to consider these findings because sexuality in the broadest sense is taught constantly in all K-12 school environments. It is built into the "hidden curriculum", defined by Longstreet and Shane as "the kinds of learnings children derive from the very nature and organizational design of the public school, as well as from the behaviors and attitudes of teachers and administrators … "[7]

To date there is no solid evidence that gender segregation "works" for teaching sexuality topics formally at any grade level. Rather, teacher comfort and teacher expectations about gender may be more of a factor in determining whether sexuality education is “effective” for their students. A teacher who is comfortable teaching sexuality topics to mixed-gender groups may be more important than the gender makeup of the classroom. Future research should compare the findings of Eliot, Pahlke, Bigler, and Hanish to what occurs in mixed-gender and single-gender sexuality education classrooms.

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1 Sparks SD (2012). Scholars say pupils gain social skills in coed classes. Education Week online 31(30):1.
2 Lise S. Eliot, Associate Professor, Neuroscience, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, Illinois:; Erin E. Pahlke, Assistant Research Professor, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University:; Rebecca S. Bigler, Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin:; Laura D. Hanish, Associate Professor, School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University:
3 Sparks.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Longstreet W.S., Shane H.G. (1993). Curriculum for a new millennium. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.