Girls vs Boys: 5 Things to Think About Before Segregating Your Classroom

Should you segregate your classroom or not?

It’s an important question that most Islamic school educators have to confront at one point or another.

Some of the things you’ll hear around the staff room include:

“Islamically, we should segregate our classrooms.”

“Sometimes, we need the girls in the classroom to calm down the boys.”

“We don’t segregate in our school because the real world isn’t segregated.”

There’s no shortage of strong opinions on both sides of the argument. But what we can all agree on is that, ultimately, the goal is to create an Islamic learning environment that enhances student learning.

To that end, segregation is an important part of the conversation. But it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, we ought to take a step back to examine the implications of teaching students based on their gender.

1. Boys and girls are just different.

There are very good arguments to support applying distinct teaching approaches for boys and girls simply because their biology is different.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist, discusses in his book Why Gender Matters some of the biological differences that argue for the need to apply distinct approaches.

Sax points to research that indicates that boys hear differently than girls; in fact at a higher level. A male student not paying attention at the back of the classroom may just need to sit a little closer to the front so that he can hear his soft-spoken teacher.

Girls, on the other hand, might get annoyed with the faint tapping of a pencil on a desk that a boy may not even notice simply because she can hear the softer pitches.

Sax also mentions research that indicates differences in eyesight. A young girl in kindergarten will choose warmer colours to draw with like red, orange, yellow, whereas a young boy prefers cooler colours like blue, black and gray. This is not based on social construct, but on the differentiated pathways and cells that make up the eyes of males and females.

Examples like these, backed by strong research, are plenty in Sax’s book.

2. Boys can learn like girls, and vice versa.

Instructional strategies designed for boys can very well be used on girls.

There is fluidity to this type of teaching and learning. Each student, whether male or female, will have different degrees of learning styles considered more masculine or more feminine.

According to Michael Gurian, a leading educator in gender-based education, a student can be placed anywhere on the spectrum of learning abilities. On one end, there are more masculine tendencies while on the other end there are more feminine tendencies.

Whatever strategy you choose to teach boys or girls in your gender-segregated classroom, recognize that while an instructional method may be designed with boys in mind, it can also be used with girls.

The goal is to engage students while being open to where they could fall on the spectrum.

3. Segregation is a form of differentiation.

In my first year of teaching I was in charge of a class of 36 students, all female, all 9th grade. The second semester of that first year introduced me to a class of all boys. I quickly realized what works with girls doesn’t always work with boys.

It was then that my mentor mentioned that girls are experiential learners whereas when a boy learns, his goal is task completion. While very rudimentary, this was my first experience in a teaching methodology that addressed differentiated instruction based on gender.

Whether or not my mentor was correct in his assertions on how boys and girls learn, the key element here was to recognize the need for differentiation.

The goal of differentiation is to provide instruction and teaching methods that cater to the needs of individual students while still taking into consideration the whole classroom.

Differentiation is a tool for advocating the needs of students with special needs, multiple intelligences and diverse backgrounds. But it can also be applied in Islamic schools as a tool for enhancing education for boys and girls by focusing on their innate abilities, strengths, and areas for growth.

4. The goal is engagement, not segregation.

Using a gender-based educational approach is more about engaging students and motivating them, and less about what is specifically for boys or for girls.

That said, being aware of how to connect with students based on gender is critical to enhancing the overall learning environment. Whether you segregate or not, the goal should always remain to enhance the learning environment based on an Islamic worldview.

All Islamic schools are somewhere on the continuum of segregation. Some classes are segregated entirely, others are combined for the entire day, whereas others are partially segregated for a portion of the day depending on the subject (sex education, Quranic studies, fiqh, etc).

Whether your Islamic school has segregated classes, separated classes, or combined classes — gender-based instructional strategies that enhance student learning should be in every teacher’s toolkit.

5. If you segregate, you can go back.

If you decide to segregate, you can always go back to combined or simply separated classes. Factors such as child development and engagement should play a significant role in whether or not a class or school chooses to segregate.

In other cases, it may be based simply on resources; availability of teachers and space. Some Islamic schools feel that segregation is a religious requirement especially for the older grades.

Numerous studies point to compelling evidence that at certain stages in child development, segregation is optimal. In other cases, it may be better to combine classes.

At one public school, the principal chose to segregate the middle school classes (Grade 6 to Grade 8). In another school, the physics class was segregated simply because of the differences in teaching strategies employed for boys and girls.

Whatever the reason, the classroom setting should take into consideration avenues for optimal engagement, even if it means combining classrooms that were once segregated or vice versa.

Are your classrooms segregated? Why or why not?

I am keen to hear about the many reasons why, or why not, Islamic schools are segregating their classrooms.

By sharing each other’s experiences, I hope we can all benefit from the multiple perspectives on the issue and further our commitment to creating an Islamic learning environment in our schools.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Omaira Alam

About Omaira Alam

Omaira Alam is the Program Director of the Islamic Teacher Education Program (islamicteachereducation.com). She holds a Masters in Transition Special Education from the George Washington University specializing in at-risk students with emotional and learning disabilities. With over 18 years of experience in teaching and teacher training, she continues her research focusing on Islamic education, special education in Muslim schools, urban Islamic education, discipline with dignity, instructional strategies based on gender and homeschooling. Her blog, Black Board, White Chalk (blackboardwhitechalk.wordpress.com), explores traditional and contemporary issues in education.
Click here to read more posts by Omaira.


  1. Omaira, I read your article and I appreciate your experiences and thoughts. The picture you have presented in your article, is all about non Muslim countries. Though the issue of segregation we are also facing here in Pakistan, but due to dominant Eastern/Islamic culture, many secular schools are practicing separate blocks for boys and girls. Parents are very conscious about there child`s behavior, whatever they teach them in conventional school or Islamic school.
    As a facilitator and education coach, I often come know about the issues of boy girl behavioral issues, and the administration tries to handle according to their policy or priorities. But, I think that there is no serious debate, observation or practice about it, neither in conventional school nor in Islamic one. I am concentrating those points very seriously that you have raised in your article. Jazkakumullah-u-kheira!

    • Assalaamu alaykum,
      Thank you for your comment. Indeed many of the situations that come up regarding segregated classrooms or the choice between them occur in predominantly non-Muslim countries. However, as you also mentioned in your comments, when we do segregate whether for religious reasons or as a social experiment or what have we need to give it more thought in terms of instructional practice and what we teach or even the order that we follow in terms of the curriculum. I’ve mentioned two authors in my post and recommend to you to look at those in terms of instructional strategies for segregated classrooms. Thank you again.

  2. Salams, besides all these research, we should first look to how did the best teacher of humanity, our Prophet (pbuh) teach in his classes. Did he segregate or did he teach both genders toghether? Once we have answer to that then we do not need to follow any other person or theories, because the Prophet (pbuh) is a role model for us and so should be followed in teaching too

    • Thank you for your comment. Following the methodology of the Prophet is indeed following the best of teachers. When we delve into his methodology we are always amazed to find the various contexts and settings that he taught in. So much we can learn from this diversity and apply to our equally diverse contexts. Thank you again.

  3. I totally understand and comprehend what you are saying, I also agree with you.

  4. Very thoughtful article sister Omaira. The research by Dr. Gurian is very relevant and islamic schools must benefit from it.

    Also could you mention the arguments in terms of what would be an appropriate age or grade when segregation would be islamically valid in primary years.

    • Thank you for your comment and question. In terms of what is Islamically valid for any age this question would best be asked of a scholar of fiqh and one versed in various educational contexts. Thank you though for your question.

    • Thank you for your question. What age is class two? I am sorry I am not familiar with this system of education.

  5. Dear Omaira,
    your point is based on the research and not concluded. Your article says yes for segregation and no for segregation. To my knowledge as an Islamic school what does Islam has to say. Islam says to separate the child from the age of 10. Why? It is the answer need to be researched. The article is the answer. Furthermore men are created from clay and women was created from rib. The characteristics of clay and characteristics of rib are different and you can see it in men and women. Your goal as mentioned in the article is good learning but not following Islam. For an Islamic school Islam is the priority. Once the Islam says this the rule we should believe and act on it. There is no room for us to question whether learning will happen or not. Allaah knows better than us

    • Assalaamu alaykum,

      Thank you for your comment. One of the key aspects of the Islamic Teacher Education Program and something we try to emphasize in the first course is that there are a number of different contexts within the realm of what is considered Islamic education. The idea is to apply the guidelines and general principles mentioned, discussed and explored in the program to our educational contexts where we serve as educators to our students be that an Islamic school, a weekend school, a madressa, or one’s own home.

      The goal is to do so within in an Islamic worldview, within the framework of striving for Allah, reaching for the Hereafter. That said, we also must recognize that while there are ideal methods of teaching, some of them for whatever reason may not be applicable to our current context. So if we do segregate then we must also consider the best teaching strategies to enhance learning. If we do not segregate or are unable to, we must always work towards enhancing the learning and teaching environment.

      Indeed, I seem to be advocating for segregation and also seem to be against segregation. My point along those lines is to ensure that if the context permits and there is segregation, what are the best instructional strategies to apply. If the context does not permit, then what strategies would work for a boy and a girl in that same class. Enhancing learning opportunities mean richer and more meaningful teaching opportunities to bring students closer to Allah. The focus is recognizing the diversity and needs of the students in order to do this.

      I hope this clarifies some of your concerns.

  6. Assalamualaikum,
    Thank you, Sister Omaira, for raising this important issue. The more a teacher is familiar with the learning needs of their students the better they’ll be equipped to teach them. To this end, being informed, through research, about the differences in male and female learning will help educators in teaching them. I feel that many of the comments posted above are over-focusing on whether their should or should not be segregation in the classrooms, rather than considering how knowledge of the differences in the male and female student can assist teachers in developing their students.

    • Walaykum assalaam Br Belal,
      Thank you for your comment and for clarifying many of the points. I sincerely appreciate it.

  7. Assalamualaikum,
    At our school we’ve started a Professional Learning Community (PLC) type of program in which we go through a selected book together. Each teacher chooses one chapter of the book to read. We then prepare a mini presentation along with a handout to distribute to the other teachers. The presentations takes place during our monthly staff meetings. Over the last couple of months we’ve covered a book called “Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls” by Michael Gurian. I found this book to be very informative and beneficial in describing the differences between boys and girls and providing strategies for teaching them accordingly.

    • Thank you Br Belal for the great book suggestion. An excellent idea to use it as part of the PLC. Michael Gurian has a number of books with a slew of strategies for boys and for girls. It is definitely worth a google search and a trip to the library.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  8. Assalamu Alaikum,
    I am currently teaching first grade at an Islamic School in Maryland, and at this school we do not segregate until 3rd grade. So for kindergarten until 2nd grade, boys and girls are mixed. I can understand both arguments, but it has been my experience that it makes it easier for children to understand the boundaries set by Allah when they are separated at an early age. Meaning, they understand that boys and girls should not be friends because they would have been together if that was permissible. I just believe that it makes it easier for later on.

    • Walaykum assalaam Sr Hasannah,
      Thank you for your comment. I am curious to know if your school uses different instructional strategies based on the type of classroom the students are in (i.e. separated or segregated)? Whether or not Islamic schools segregate, I wonder how much time Islamic schools spend in developing teaching methodologies that are optimal for just boys or just girls.
      Thank you!

  9. It was mentioned at a recent staff meeting that there was no basis in Islam for segregation by gender. I was initially shocked but did not have a clear statement from the Qur’an or Sunnah to cite as a refutation. One post mentions separating at the age of 10. Can anyone provide the reference details for this? And are there other proofs for segregation?

    I think segregation inculcates modesty and should be used a tool of character education and prevention. The boundaries between men and women have slowly eroded since my conversion 20 years ago. In many communities, there is no marked difference between same gender and mixed gender interactions and communication. I pray that our Islamic schools can reverse this trend.

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