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!