A class of 15- to 16-year-olds at Hovseter School in Oslo has been splitting up into single-sex learning groups for four lessons a week. Despite showing good results and being liked by the students, the experiment is controversial. Norwegian schools have taught boys and girls together since 1884 and segregation by gender is banned.
“The class has 18 boys and 12 girls,” Helle Gulestøl, teaching assistant in class 10A at Hovseter, told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. “Some of the boys took up a lot of space, while the girls became marginalized and were more wary of speaking out. We felt the girls needed to be given a voice.”
Another trial project, teaching girls and boys separately in Kautokeino a few years ago, also yielded good results. None of the education experts Dagsavisen interviewed knows how common such experiments are in Norwegian schools, but all agree they’re fairly rare.
The consensus among the girls in class 10A is that the project has changed their day at school dramatically and in a positive manner. “We’re more willing to speak out when the boys are away,” several of the girls told Dagsavisen. “It’s easier to concentrate when you don’t have to worry about a pencil being pelted at the back of your head,” another girl said with a smile.
Gulestøl says that the last four months have been very interesting. “When the girls have been tought separately for a while, they speak up more,” Gulestøl said. “This has become still more noticeable when the class of 30 pupils is united again.”
In 1884 the Norwegian parliament (Stortinget), passed legislation allowing girls and boys to receive education together. More than 100 years later, in 1997, a new law banned segregation of the sexes in education. Splitting up girls and boys for limited periods, however, was permitted.
Mixed classes have always been the rule in rural schools, because of the small number of pupils. In the cities, segregated classes were phased out gradually during the 1950s and 1960s.
Sometimes returning to methods scrapped earlier can be a good idea, according to Gulestøl and her colleagues at Hovseter School. Mathematics teacher Morten Solgaard said separate teaching has dramatically improved the learning environment.
“Absolutely,” Solgaard told Dagsavisen. “The girls now have their say in the reunited class. Both girls and boys are more able to concentrate and make a better effort in class.”
In science classes, the teenagers have sex education. Ingvil Martinsen, who teaches the subject, thinks the students are much more open when they are not in a mixed class. “We have totally different discussions. The pupils are less reserved and they ask more questions,” Martinsen said.
Reducing the size of the group being taught might in itself be enough to improve the learning environment, but class 10A already had been split in two, with each group containing both girls and boys. “The effect was nowhere near as good as with single -sex classes,” Gulestøl told Dagsavisen.
Astrid Roe, and education specialist at the University of Oslo, said it was “a little politically incorrect to segregate by gender,” but thinks the results from Hovseter sound interesting. She has no misgivings about projects with single-sex classes: “Not at all. It’s not as if mixed classes are the only true religion.” She stresses that she doesn’t favour a return to single-sex classes in all subjects all the time, but notes that “if students say they are learning more, what more could one want?”
Even though separate teaching has broad support among both the girls and boys, no one wants permanently segregated classes. “That would be boring,” said 15-year-old Anna Øren. “Boys are a part of life. They add spice to everyday existence with their actions and humour, but it’s nice to get a little holiday from them from time to time.”