The pros and cons of modern-day parallel learning


For many parents, choosing the right school begins with deciding on a co-ed, or single-sex approach. But as parallel learning becomes more common in many Australian schools, there is another option to explore.

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, innovative approaches are continually being developed to cater to the diverse needs of students and foster effective learning. One such approach gaining recognition and momentum is parallel learning, an educational model that’s reshaping the way we think about the co-ed experience.

Parallel learning explained

At first glance, parallel learning has the potential to offer ‘the best of both worlds’, as it combines aspects of both single-sex and co-ed schooling. Separate classrooms are designated for boys and girls within the same school, while both study the same curriculum. It’s designed to capitalise on the recognised differences in preferred learning styles between genders. Advocates argue that this model allows for tailored teaching methods that can better engage students for most of their classes, with some subjects and activities studied in a co-ed setting.

A teacher told EducationDaily, “There’s a lot of scientific evidence that men and women have different brains – for example, the way that women integrate information is different from the way that men do because we have a larger corpus callosum. This network of nerve fibres allows greater communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and lends itself to big-picture thinking. As educators, it is important for us to acknowledge that and differentiate our lessons.”

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The thinking is that this harnesses the social and engagement benefits of single-sex education, catering to both male and female learning styles with the added benefit of both sides of the school socialising and collaborating for select activities.

The benefits of co-educational parallel learning

Catering to diverse learning styles

In their white paper How Boys Learn, Saving Our Sons author and social philosopher Michael Gurian and renowned US educator and author Kathy Stevens note that, as young as four days old, girls spend twice as much time maintaining eye contact with adults as boys do. At four months, girls can better distinguish between strangers and familiar faces, and they’re more inclined to look at caregivers than at the distant, moving objects their male counterparts are drawn to.

“Memory centres and spatial-mechanical pathways already work differently,” the report continues – and so begin the differences in preferred ways of learning.

The consensus is that boys are hands-on learners, and girls prefer to talk amongst themselves to get a better understanding of a subject before coming up with solutions.

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A key benefit for students in a parallel learning environment is access to tailored teaching, which challenges the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to traditional co-education through lesson plans designed to meet the unique learning styles of each cohort.

Enhanced focus

Removing distractions by providing single-sex learning environments creates space for more focused study.

A teacher told EducationDaily, “Sometimes, I observe a change in behaviour, or a change in focus. In my personal experience, this is highly variable – and rings true with some students more than others. Some students may be more interested in the lesson and less distracted by the dynamic of being around the opposite sex. However, I do believe that, in single-sex schools, students generally feel more free to be themselves, and less concerned with how they are appearing.”

A parallel learning dynamic also allows both male and female learning styles to be embraced to the full, while studying the same material. The boys can get hands-on with a lesson plan designed to suit that learning style, while the girls can gather to absorb information and discuss it in an environment specifically set up for that style of study.

Increased participation

Advocates for parallel learning believe that students may feel more comfortable participating actively in class when the pressure of gender-related inhibitions is removed. The more comfortable students are in their learning environment, the more inclined they are to actively participate and confidently explore and analyse it with their peers. This level of participation empowers students to go beyond simple comprehension of the texts they study.

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The challenges of co-educational parallel learning

Reinforcement of gender stereotypes

A 2018 Arizona State University report into gender-segregated (GS) schooling and gender stereotyping tested the theory that separating girls and boys into separate classes leads to increased gender stereotyping. With a sample group of 365 students, the report found that “the more GS classes students took, the more gender stereotyped they were in their responses… concluding that GS likely heightens the salience of gender in the classroom; thereby reinforcing and increasing gender stereotypes”.

In a school environment, this can affect the student experience, performance, subject choices and overall well-being. The effect on learning is that the negative impacts of gender stereotyping can shape self-perception, and influence attitudes to relationships and how young people will eventually participate in the workplace.

Limited social interactions

Social interactions play an important role in learning and the development of critical thinking, as they support students in reflecting on their understanding of a topic, and finding gaps in their reasoning.

Parallel learning critics believe that limiting students’ social interactions with the opposite gender limits their ability to interact fully and confidently in real-world scenarios.

Including transgender and non-binary students

Co-educational parallel learning poses unique challenges for transgender and non-binary students. Education NSW states unequivocally that “all students, including those who identify as transgender, have a right to be treated equitably and with dignity”. A suite of resources is offered to support this.

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Here are some suggested initiatives for the parents and carers of transgender and non-binary students to look out for and/or advocate for when researching parallel learning schools.

Flexible classroom placement

Allowing students to choose the classroom that aligns with their gender identity, or providing gender-neutral options.

Inclusive policies

Implementing non-discrimination policies that protect transgender and non-binary students from discrimination, harassment, and bullying. Policies that nurture inclusive environments that respect and validate gender identities.

Teacher training

Providing professional development for teachers on gender sensitivity and inclusion.

Co-educational parallel learning has not been without controversy. Critics argue that it can perpetuate gender bias and the potential discomfort it may pose for transgender and non-binary students raises ethical and equity concerns.

It is a model with certain clear benefits for the students best suited to the customised learning it offers each gender. But is it time for inclusive environments that respect the full spectrum of gender identities?

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With the 2016 Australian Census highlighting that approximately 35% of sex/gender diverse respondents identify as non-binary, perhaps institutions at the forefront of pioneering co-ed and parallel learning should be proactively working towards more inclusive educational approaches.

Australian parallel learning schools include:

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.