The Most Appropriate Learning Environments Education Essay

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Efforts to design the most appropriate learning environments for adolescents frequently lead to discussions of single-sex versus co-educational schooling, arguments and research supporting both types of schooling have been made, particularly as they relate to academic, socioemotional, and interpersonal development. The conduct of physical education classes in single-gender versus co-educational formats is widely debated internationally, the purpose of this study was to investigate the differences of female participation levels in both single sex PE and mixed sex PE. Four intact certified physical education specialists from two secondary schools were used in the study. All of the teachers were female. In two of the classes, students were split out according to gender with males being taught by one instructor and the females being taught by the other instructor. For the co-educational classes, the students were randomly assigned to either of the teachers, with boys and girls evenly divided between the two classes. Essentially two new classes were created at each school. Quantitative and qualitative methods were used for the study. Two questionnaires were administered to the students. Analysis of data from the questionnaire showed the student variables that were measured quantitatively for determining girls' self-efficacy for physical education was found to be significant at the 05 level, favouring girls in single-sex environments. Data from the post-intervention questionnaire and student and teacher interviews were analysed to provide insight into student preferences for these contexts. It is concluded from the qualitative data that single-sex physical education have a more supportive learning environment, and have better conduct than coeducational classes.

Introduction

The debate about the relative merits and disadvantages of single-sex and coeducational schooling, like the debate about single-sex classes in mixed schools, is long running and shows no sign of abating. Although research on, and reviews of, the benefits of single-sex versus coeducational schooling (mainly secondary level) have been undertaken around the world - most notably UK, Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and USA - the results are equivocal. In other words, we lack consistent, robust evidence about the advantages of one school type over the other. However, one emerging finding is that we can not evaluate the effects of single-sex school on educational achievement in a vacuum, that is, the social and cultural context of the school needs to be taken into account.  This resource page looks at the multifaceted arguments, looking at the key issues of: the socio cultural context; academic attainment; curriculum and subject choice; children's experiences of schooling; and social concerns, including preparation for life beyond school.

Throughout the history of gender and education, schools have been viewed as important sites for social change and places to foster the development of more equal societies with less oppressive social conditions for women.  There are different ways to approach the question about the benefits of single sex schools. Some feminist academics argue that women need to have academic success before they can take up roles in public domains and so influence laws, policies and the conditions of all women within society. According to the first position single sex schools may give girls the edge in academic success because lessons can be designed to tap into girls' interests and so motivate them specifically in subjects that have masculine connotations such as the sciences.  Others argue that schools should be places that model equality and so provide young people with early experiences and knowledge of gender equality, otherwise they will reproduce the unequal gender patterns that they encounter outside school in their later lives.  According to the second position, co-educational schooling may be seen as a route towards greater gender equality.  However, given that in most societies, gender inequalities are structural, teachers need to have enough gender awareness to prevent gendered inequalities being imperceptibly reproduced through their pedagogic practice. Hence the continuing need for all teachers to develop gender awareness.

Although the current educational climate is one in which academic performance and the acquisition of credentials are emphasised, it is important not to downplay the significance of educational experiences for children. Much small-scale research undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that girls' experiences in co-educational schools were problematic in a variety of ways. For example, research suggested that: teachers were more intellectually encouraging to, and demanding of, boys and rewarded girls for good, appropriately 'feminine' behaviour; boys dominated in the classroom, both in terms of space and teacher time; sexual harassment of girls by boys in the classroom was not uncommon; and boys' contributions to classroom discussion were taken more seriously than girls' contributions.

However, it is important to note that not all boys dominate classroom space and not all girls are quiet, and research conducted more recently tends to be more attentive than work conducted in the 1970s and 1980s to differences within gender groups, as well as between them. Nevertheless, although factors such as social class, 'race' and ethnicity can be as important as gender for shaping how young people experience schooling, evidence suggests that the gendered patterns of behaviour identified in the 1970s and 1980s persist in coeducational schools today. Of course, this does not mean that single-sex schools offer wholly positive experiences for all children, and this is an area that would benefit from more research.

There is very little research on the long-term social consequences of single-sex and co-educational schooling. Nevertheless, many advocates of co-education argue that mixed schools are essential so that girls and boys can learn to live and work together. In general, their argument is that schools should reflect 'real' life (presumably out-of-school life), and as society is mixed, schools should also be mixed.

Some advocates of girls' schools, on the other hand, argue the opposite. They suggest that the fact that girls' schools do not mirror 'real life' is a key reason to have them. They argue that generally, western societies are male-dominated and women are frequently second place to men in terms of, amongst other things, opportunities, pay and power. So students and teachers need to challenge and change these inequalities rather than reproduce them in schools. Proponents of this argument suggest that single-sex schools can be spaces where girls can begin to challenge male dominance and power, where girls can learn that they do not have to take second place to boys, that they can work free from harassment and taunts, and that they can do science.

The little empirical evidence that exists regarding the long-term social consequences of single-sex and mixed schooling reveals no consistent differences in the personal development of girls and boys in these school types. Evidence suggests, for example, there are no significant differences between students who attend single-sex schools and students who attend co-educational schools in terms of how easy or difficult they find it to adjust socially to university life. Overall though, this is yet another area where we have more unanswered than answered questions.

The purpose of this study is twofold: (1) to assess the effects of co-educational and sex-segregated classes on several self-efficacy variables in middle school girls' while participating in physical education; and (2) to determine the influence of these variables upon secondary school girls' efficacy for physical learning.

This research was designed to answer the following questions:

1. Are there differences between single-sex classes and mixed-sex PE classes with respect to middle school girls' self-efficacy for obtaining skills during physical education?

2. How does single-sex and mixed-sex physical education settings influence the self-efficacy of secondary school girls for acquiring skills during PE?

Literature review

Mixed-gender Physical Education (PE) has sparked a lot of argument amongst many stakeholders including researchers and educators (Issues,1999), most of whom are interested in promoting the learning environment for the females so they can be educated effectively just like the male students (Carpenter & Acosta, 2001). Many of those who have studied this area have thought that integration of male and females during PE lessons would remove the problem of discrimination since both genders would receive similar instructions as well as the curricular content (Griffin, 1983). However, many other researchers have contradicted this observation because they found that mixing girls and boys during PE lessons do not amount to equitable treatment for girls (Chepyator-Thomson & Ennis, 1997; Derry & Phillips, 2002; Hutchinson, 1995).

In a qualitative study conducted by Griffin (1983; 1984), integration of both genders during physical education was presented as neither conducive nor equitable for girls and some boys. The capacity of girls to learn in such environments was inhibited by the behavior of boys including display of physical contact, verbal harassment and taking of girls' turns (Griffin,1983). On the other hand, girls did not inhibit the performance of boys and actually opted to stay away from them (Griffin,1983). Another highly influential factor that affected the mixed-gender classes is the manner in which boys controls the activity during the classes, hence rendering the girls less influential and less active (Chepyator-Thomson & Ennis, 1997; Derry & Phillips, 2002). Furthermore, girls have a tendency of losing enthusiasm during interaction with their peers in the course of physical education - this makes them to develop a fearful attitude and negative feelings towards interactive physical activity, which in effect reduces their level of participation (Kunesh, Hasbrook, & Lewthwaite, 1992). Furthermore, the settings of physical education classes are important in shaping the attitudes of girls towards physical education.

Researchers such as Sallis and McKenzie (1991) have agreed that the participation in physical education, by adolescents is largely influenced by positive learning experiences. Research studies have also disclosed that girls are increasingly stopping their participation in physical activities at secondary school level (Jaffee and Ricker,1993; Douthitt,1994). The level of girls' participation in physical activities is influenced by factors such as self-esteem, level of enjoyment, the time of engaging in learning, perceived athletic competence, and the health benefits gained by taking part in the physical activities (Brustad, 1993; Jaffee & Manzer, 1992).

The debate among different researchers regarding the suitability of mixed-gender PE has heighted, with Koca (2009) reporting that many researchers have found that mixed-gender PE provides an opportunity for the learners to interact socially and share positive ideas. However, on the flip side of the coin, the likes of Olafson (2002) supported an argument that the perceived social interactions during mixed-gender PE classes is the same factor that makes adolescent girls avoid taking part in the co-educational classes. On a study conducted by Treanor, Graber, Housner and Wiegand (1998), which aimed at interviewing the students to find their opinion regarding the best approach to physical education; that is, which among co-education or single sex physical education is the most suitable. The findings of this study were that a majority of the students prefer single-sex classes to the mixed-gender classes. Nonetheless, Treanor, et al. (1998) noted that the views of the students alone could not be relied upon to resolve that single -sex classes are the most suitable for secondary schools physical education, especially as their views are biased and lack any credible ground. Although most of the students implied that their preference for single-sex classes was based on issues such as better behavior, more practice time, less fear of injury and better competition, most of their opinions was not subject to their personal conviction but on gender-bias attitudes. Derry (2002) echoed the findings of Treanor et al by supporting that a staggering 75% of the students interviewed pointed out single-sex classes as their preference. Derry (2002) also added that 84% of the girls that participated in single-sex physical education classes maintained that they liked such an environment and would like to continue with it next time.

Ideally, it is known that as students approach their adolescent age, they become less physically active. This problem has been cited as the major determining factor in the attitude of students before they enter the adolescent age and after they are past the adolescent age (Hannon & Ratliff, 2005). The results as presented by Hannon & Ratliff (2005) have shown that the percentage of girls who are active in physical exercises decreased from 31% in year 9 to 17% in the sixth-form. Similarly, Treanor, et al. (1998) found that males have a relatively high level of participation in physical education in all years throughout secondary school. To add to this, Felton et al. (2005) found that 45% of the sixth form girls and 67% of the year 9 girls were found to take part in energetic physical activity about 20 minutes for at least three days per week.

Whitlock (2008) disclosed that indeed adolescence is a stage of dramatic change and hence it is a period that young girls undergo a lot of hardships. In this stage, girls undergo a dynamic and developmental life when they make very important decisions regarding their typical behaviors such as physical activity, diets, use of tobacco and alcohol, participation in sexual activity among other aspects of life that shapes their health and wellbeing up to the time they become adults (Whitlock, 2008). Essentially, developmental changes, under which the young adolescents girls undergo a traumatic experience, cause them a lot of trouble, for example because of sexual harassments and incidents of upsetting remarks that are common in environments of mixed-education (Derry & Phillips, 2004). Some of these facts were confirmed in Olafson's (2002), where one of the girls reveled that, "like they don't know the emotional pain they cause when they call you bad names" (p.2). This student was complaining about the way she is usually offended by the male students who use offensive names when referring to girls during mixed physical education classes.

Olafson (2002) found that the tendency of girls to skip physical education is mainly because they have an attitude that such activities are 'totally embarrassing'. The reason for this is because the girls kept complaining that the boys used offensive language and insulted them severally hence they would rather keep off such activities. Olafson also realised that girls behaved in strange manner in order to avoid attending the PE classes, including presenting notes from their parents claiming that they have been told not to attend PE classes, refusing to put on PE kit, and skipping classes altogether.

The male students have been found to mock girls in respect to their body type and also putting girls down, something that really aggravates girls. Constantinou, Manson, & Silverman's (2009) studied the behavior of girls when attending physical education classes and found that boys show no regards to the girls' abilities but rather belittle and disrespect them. Actually, they found that the offensive acts that was done to humiliate girls was not done amongst the boys themselves.

Several studies have associated self-esteem with physical education - it has been suggested that the girls' participation in physical activities is largely as a result of self esteem. Eriksson, Nordqvist, and Rasmussen (2008) defines self esteem as the extent to which individuals like themselves as persons. A commonly determining factor of girl's self-esteem when they are in their adolescent age includes their body type and size - this determines whether their self -esteem is positive or negative. Some of the female students in Olafson (2002) claimed that they avoid physical activities at school because they have a negative feeling towards showcasing their bodies especially in front of male students. In fact, it has been found that girls who participate in physical education lessons struggle to improve the outlook of their body so they can have the kind of body type and image that they perceive to be perfect. The girl's were found to have perfected an image of durable body types in their minds and also observed to have developed a habitual tendency of evaluating the body of their peers through constant gazes (Olafson, 2002). It was ideally learnt that girls were expected to be always in control, to be graceful, and generally be able to do at least all things. It was expected the girls should stay composed even if they got injured during physical exercises. When girls accidentally got injuries and the look on their face seemed funny, the boys mocked and looked down upon them (Olafson 2002).

Besides being offended based on the way girls look, the studies have also found that the nature of boys including their competitive demeanour and body size is also a significant factor that turn off girls during co-educational classes. Derry (2002) found that boys were very domineering during physical education and this was causing girls to reduce their level of participation. According to girls, boys have the habit of taking over everything in co-educational classes. Cases in point is whereby boys have apperception that girls are less capable of doing things and hence always find themselves taking charge of everything (Derry, 2009). This concept is also found in Derry (2009) whereby a girl that was interviewed claimed that she did not like playing with boys because if she is given a chance to enter the pitch with them, she can hardly get a chance to touch the ball. On the other hand, the comments of boys regarding this issue shows that they look down upon girls and have a perception that physical education is too competitive for them to take part (Koca, 2009).

Furthermore, girls are intimidated by the physical size and strength of boys. They also do not like their aggressive and intimidating attitude (Derry, 2002). Despite the degrading manner in which girls are treated by boys, Constantinou, et al. (2009) found that girls have a conviction that they are 'competitive' and 'athletic.' Constantinou, et al. (2009) added that the female students who believe they are athletic feel comfortable participating in physical activities together with boys because, as they said, this makes physical learning a fun and an interesting experience. Their findings were echoed by Olafson (2002) who agreed to the fact that they had fun in physical learning.

In summary, there are study findings that have revealed that co-educational physical education is advantageous,, but at the same time there are other studies that have supported the idea that physical education should be based on single-sex. Generally, the students who are asked about their opinion regarding co-educational physical education, maintain that positive interaction with the other gender is the ain advantage (Osborne, et al. 2002). Additionally, it is believed that a co-educational environment promotes exchange of diverse ideas from both genders, but overall the studies show that the majority of the students support single-sex physical education (Osborne, et al,2002).

Methodology

This study interviewed a total of 50 female students, 25 of whom will come from co-educational classes and 25 will come from single-sex physical education classes. The students that were elected to participate must be in the age bracket of 12 and 15 years and within year's 7- 9. The female participants were asked a series of open-ended and semi-structured questions regarding the physical education experiences. To gather more information, the researcher repeated this process on 10 female physical education teachers, 5 of who came from single-sex classes and 5 from co-educational classes. Throughout the interview an audiotape was used to record the conversation and later transcribed for analysis. In order to supplement the audio interview with observable features, the researcher videotaped the proceedings with a camera. The study included 10 different school environments.

Once the categories were defined and grouped by similar ideas, the responses were coded and frequency counts were computed for the themes identified from the data. Some information that was acquired during the interview process was discarded, because the contents were irrelevant to the heart of the study.

Results

The Research Hypothesis stated that girls in single sex classes would exhibit significantly higher self-efficacy for learning volleyball than would girls in coeducational classes. To examine these effects, the students completed the questionnaire for Self- Confidence for Learning Volleyball Scale, which was adapted from the Fennema and Sherman's Self-Confidence for Learning Mathematics Scale (1976). The Self-Confidence for Learning Volleyball Scale contains three sub-scales constructs that measure self-efficacy (self-confidence for learning volleyball, gender-appropriateness of volleyball, and usefulness of volleyball). Means, standard deviations, and a t-test were used to explore the hypothetical relationships among the variables. The means and standard deviations for sub-scales (self-confidence for learning volleyball, gender-appropriateness of volleyball, and usefulness of volleyball) on the SPS are presented in Table 1. Table 2 presents the results of the t-Test for the post-test group comparisons. There were 139 questionnaires completed for both single-sex environment (N=71) and coeducational environment (68). Thirty questions were scored utilizing a scale ranging from 1-4, with 4 representing higher levels of confidence, and mean values were computed. The means and standard deviations of girls' scores from the self-efficacy subscales show that girls in single-sex environments had stronger self-efficacy for learning volleyball than girls in coeducational environments.

Pretest

Post-test

Single-sex

N= 25

Mixed-sex

N = 25

Signle-sex

N = 25

Mixed-sex

N= 25

Confidence

3.61

(0.71)

3.51

(0.68)

3.83

(0.80)

3.42

(0.73)

Usefulness

3.48

3.33

3.62

3.30

(0.51)

(0.55)

0.55)

0.55)

Table 1: Means and standard deviations for Self Perception Variables

From the data collected during the interviews, it was apparent that the students had a preference for either coeducational or same-sex P.E. some students explained that they preferred same sex P.E over co-educational because "the boys are always getting in trouble because they are messing around and talking when the teacher is talking." Sarah felt that large amounts of time were wasted in co-educational classes because the teachers had to discipline the boys so often. Sarah's views aligned with the research by Osborne, Bauer, and Sutliff (2002), which found that most girls are not satisfied with the cooperation levels of the opposite sex during co-educational physical education classes.

Some girls preferred coeducational P.E. for the simple fact that this was an avenue to display her high level of skill ability to the boys. Lucy stated, "I am a sporty type of girl so I like class when there are boys in it because I can show them that I can play too." She did not mind the physical play in class, and reported that she liked rough play, especially when they had their football unit. Lucy did not like football in same-sex P.E. because "the girls are too worried about how they look and don't try very hard." Lucy's view conflicted with research by Osborne, Bauer, and Sutliff (2002), in which they concluded that girls felt football was better suited for an all male class.

The learning environment plays a vital role in student learning (Derry & Phillips, 2004).

How students perceive this atmosphere may influence factors such as activity time, off-task behavior, and skill development. From a health-related standpoint, if a student feels uncomfortable participating in class, this inactivity could lead to various health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The probability of a student engaging in life-long activity

may also decrease as a result of feeling uncomfortable in P.E. in respect to this issue, a female student perceived the learning environment in same-sex P.E. classes to be more conducive

to learning content. She commented in the interview that "I learn more in class when it is same-sex because the teacher does not have to stop telling the boys to be quiet. I can focus more on the skill being taught in class that day and get more practice tries during class time." This perception was in agreement with Derry and Phillips (2004). From their findings, it was concluded that students enrolled in same-sex classes had significantly more teacher interactions and engaged learning time. Girls approached their teachers more often and asked more questions than those in coeducational classes.

Class structure in physical education played a vital role in terms of how the secondary students socialised in class. In this study, both genders agreed that having more friends in a class made the class more enjoyable. A female commented, "I like to play volleyball in class when I have a lot of friends there. It just makes class more fun." Another male student said, "I like to work on team related skills with a friend in class because I think we communicate better with them if I like them." From one of the females' interview, she concluded that she felt boys were bigger and stronger than most girls at this age. Derry (2002) indicated similar results. The results from this study found that girls do recognize and express feelings of boys having athletic superiority, as well as obvious physical size and strength differences.

Girls were found to be intimidated by these differences and often did not socialise with boys who were bigger in stature during class time. From the student data on social impact and class structure, it was evident that how peers perceived each other did play a role in the socialisation process of secondary school students. This perception related back to classroom environment and the expectations set by the teachers. These participants seemed very aware of their surroundings and how others perceived their actions.

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to to review the differences of female participation levels in both single sex PE and mixed sex PE. Specifically, this study investigated which class structure students preferred, perceptions of the learning environment in both classes, and the social impact the class structure had on the participants. Interpretation of the data suggested that students did have something important to say in terms of how physical education classes were structured at their school. Students liked components of both types of classes, shared a variety of viewpoints concerning co-educational and same-sex P.E., and benefited from the participation in both structures. The results paralleled the findings of Greenwood and Stillwell (2001). From their findings, it was concluded that it seemed logical to provide physical education experiences to students that are both coeducational and same-sex.

Another important piece of data that was collected during the interviews was girls' perceptions of the boys' behaviors during class, and how the boys perceived their own behaviors.

Girls felt that the boys were consistently getting in trouble in class and had a hard time listening when the teaching was providing instruction. The girls found this behavior annoying and disruptive to the class environment. Girls expressed a concern since teachers constantly had to tell the boys to stop "messing" around and pay attention during P.E. The point of view of the boys was much different compared to the girls. They did not perceive their behaviors as disruptive, and often times were not aware that the behaviors they displayed were inappropriate.

The boys believed the girls were only trying to get them in trouble so they would look better than the boys in the teacher's eyes. It was evident from the results that the genders did not agree on the perceptions they had of various behaviors that were displayed during co-educational physical education classes.

Based on the findings, several key aspects of information were concluded. First, students did have a preference of class structure, and their voice was valuable in providing information concerning student preferences. Students are a marginalized group that deserves to be heard in terms of content and curriculum development. As previously stated, administration and teachers develop most of the curriculum with no input from students. Results indicated that if the goal of education is student learning, it may be necessary to allow the students' voices to be heard. Second, the learning environment was critical in student learning. Results identified that the classroom structure did impact student learning. This atmosphere should be a warm, positive atmosphere where all students feel comfortable and safe to learn. Input from students about the learning environment may assist educators in structuring classroom settings that are more beneficial to learning. Finally, the social environment established in a classroom is vital in developing students who are respectful, responsible, and able to work with others. From the data, it was apparent that the students felt some social isolation throughout their experiences in physical education. If schools are designed to educate students, and the ultimate goal is student learning, it may be necessary that the students' voices are heard and have some impact in the curriculum design process.

The evidence from the research and this study seemed to point to a wide range of preferences among middle school students. School curriculums may address this diversity in preferences by offering classes that are structured from both a coeducational and same-sex perspective. It should be the goal of any physical education curriculum to promote an understanding and involvement in physical activity for a lifetime so students can actively engage in activity that interests and benefits their well being. Assessing the classroom environment and how students perceive it may be the first steps in promoting quality physical education experiences for all students. In addition, with the rise in youth obesity and inactivity, quality physical education environments may be the only opportunity for students to learn the necessary skills and knowledge to be physically active and gain an understanding of the importance and benefits of doing so.

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