Vive la difference!

Jun 16, 2013, 08:30 IST | Meher Marfatia

Sixteen years ago a certainty flashed. Watching my five-year-old tell the Jungle Book story to his baby sister who sat bolt upright in her pram in the park to listen, I knew I was looking at siblings who wouldn't share the same school playground

Meher Marfatia(Show me a husband from all-boys St Mary’s High School, Byculla, sending a son anywhere besides his alma mater and I’ll treat you to lunch, restaurant of your choice!) Cool by me. My brother and I had attended separate Jesuit schools, no harm done.

Several June terms later, it’s a fresh academic year. Up pops that oft asked question: Do girls and boys learn differently? The debate between Same-sex v/s Co-ed Schools goes interestingly beyond the obvious line: “Gender-mixed classrooms flow with healthy interaction between the sexes.”

Despite the advantages of co-ed classes, same-sex schooling comes up trumps when research recommends boys and girls be taught with certain variations. Curriculum planner Amita Sen advised in an editorial: “Don’t mix apples and oranges. One stereotype is that boys are superior in math and have better leadership qualities. The idea that educators teach a brain rather than the child who owns it should be treated with caution.”

It’s no secret that girls march roughly a year-and-a-half ahead of boys in reading and writing skills. Sen cited another finding, from Journal of the Acoustical Society of America - that girls have significantly sharper hearing than boys. This is especially true of 4 KHz frequencies, important for speech discrimination.

In the classroom this means a male teacher’s voice is pitched to sound that might intimidate front-row girls. Forced to listen to decibel levels four times louder than boys, girls placed the same distance from the teacher as boys, may feel shouted at. It is also unfairly seen as good reason to seat girls on back benches just because they are less distracted than boys who fidget (a normal process stimulating male brains) and fuzz their attention span.

As co-ed IB schools mushroom in the city, elsewhere in the world educating boys and girls apart is an old approach gaining new ground. With raised levels of self-esteem and individualism, girls speak out candidly in a room filled with their kind. Boys are more cooperative and collaborative sans girls before whom they show off. Kids of both genders undergo less pressure as they develop physically.

Such schools break sexist monotypes. They keep girls strong to compete in supposedly male-dominated subjects like math, science and technology without having to dumb down. Boys feel freer to pursue “feminine” interests such as poetry or dance. Having taught in two co-ed schools before heading the Hindi department in a girls’ school, Krishna Gopal Pandey casts his vote for single-sex education. “It’s 100 per cent right for girls to retain academic ability and emotional maturity,” he says. “Science or languages, they are all-rounders who shine if left to focus on their own.”

School v/s school
Experts warn that simply placing kids apart in classrooms achieves zilch unless teachers use techniques which are gender-geared. The best educators embrace a variety of learning styles within mixed classrooms. In India, an imposed mental segregation still slots science-math versus language-social studies as ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ areas of excellence. A professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences believes culture controls operate subtly but surely. “Mumbai’s so-called liberal families travel, ensure their children earn foreign degrees... but continue to press a girl into what they expect is her ultimate role in life - of wife and mother.”

Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. You can reach her at    

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