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Originally, coeducation meant the integrated instruction of girls and boys with pedagogical intentions, but the term is often used, as in this article, for mixed classes. Throughout the nineteenth century, coeducation was not an issue in schools for lower classes and schools in the countryside; on the contrary, big classes without age and sex segregation were the only way to provide at least a basic education for the poor, at least in Europe. Further education was reserved for children whose parents could afford to pay the tuition, and here coeducation was unthinkable. In the United States, girls and boys in the so-called common schools were in the same classes, and most high schools were also coeducational.
Following the modernization processes and social changes at the end of the nineteenth century, a reformation of girls’ higher education became necessary in many Western countries. Despite the resistance from various sides—especially from men who were afraid of the potential competition from women in the labor market—after the turn of the century girls were even allowed to enter universities. This led to the question whether girls could be accepted in boys’ schools. In many European countries, universities were a men’s domain where women were first excluded, then later slowly and reluctantly accepted, but in the United States, women’s colleges have been founded since the 1830s, and since the mid-1800s, female students have been admitted to some formerly all-male colleges and universities. However, numerous all-male colleges continued to exclude females until the 1960s.
Arguments For And Against Coeducation
For sixty to seventy years the pros and cons have repeated themselves in a relatively consistent fashion. Co-educational advocates placed economic arguments in the foreground: Many communities could not afford to establish girls’ schools. Coeducation opponents based their arguments mainly on the theory of polarity, that is, on the differences in the nature and purpose of women and men and on the resulting differences in attributes, behavior patterns, interests, and competences. Views about the achievement potentials and natural gifts of men and women synthesized to form the myth of female weakness and male strength, in which the supposed intellectual deficiencies of girls were emphasized. There were also fears of men and women becoming equals, which would have shaken the foundations of the prevailing gender order. Schools were expected to prepare boys for their roles as breadwinners and guardians of the family, and girls were to be prepared for their roles as wives and mothers. Coeducation, it was felt, would jeopardize this division of labor, partly because girls would be able to qualify for the professions. (It was precisely this improvement in educational opportunities for girls that the advocates of coeducation put forward as an argument for mixed classes.) Further arguments frequently used against coeducation were that girls would be overtaxed, that boys would become effeminate, and that coeducation represented a threat to decorum and propriety. The discourse on education before World War II was generally characterized by stereotypical and sometimes contradictory assertions that were not based on valid and reliable empirical findings.
However, the numerous arguments put forward against the teaching of mixed classes were unable to prevent the spread of coeducation in actual educational practice.
Coeducation in PE Developments
When the debate on the implications of coeducation flared up at the end of the nineteenth century, physical education (PE) was completely omitted from the discussion. It was not thought necessary to make any special mention of this issue because even the advocates of coeducation, both male and female, took separate physical education for boys and girls for granted. The manifest differences in athletic achievement, the dangers that seemed to threaten morals and decency, the different contents and goals of physical education—aimed at educating boys to become proficient soldiers and girls to become healthy mothers—all were arguments that made it impossible to even imagine coeducation in school sports. More than the lessons in the classroom, PE lessons emphasized gender differences, delineated the borders between the two sexes, and formed distinct, gender-specific bodies and characters that, in turn, were used as evidence to legitimize the gender order.
Controversial Mixed PE Classes-1970s
Coeducation in the classroom spread swiftly after World War II without causing controversy, but separate PE classes were still taken for granted, not least because different “male” and “female” sports dominated the curricula for girls and boys. Through women’s integration in ‘men’s sports’ such as football in the 1970s, among other things, the curricula and guidelines for girls’ and boys’ physical education began to adapt to each other. At the same time, though, educators and sports scientists started to question the whole concept of gender segregation in sports lessons. This was the era of the new women’s movement, anti-authoritarian education, the criticism of competitive sports, and, generally, manifold reform initiatives; against this background, aims, contents, and teaching methods—including mixed PE classes—were scrutinized. Empirical studies of mixed PE lessons were carried out, particularly interviews and observations, lessons were evaluated, and pedagogic pilot projects devised. Extensive pupil surveys and numerous test lessons revealed that mixed PE lessons are possible and effective, depending on the aims of the lesson, but that they can also create specific problems.
In discussions of coeducation in the 1970s and 1980s, however, scientific results and arguments were often only ostensibly placed in the foreground while the real issues were the underlying political orientations and ideologies.
Opposition to mixed sports lessons came from various directions: not only from sport educators and ad-ministration officials who emphasized the traditional men’s and women’s roles but also from teachers with a traditional understanding of PE who wanted homogeneous groups because they wanted to concentrate on improving pupils’ motor skills and performances.
The opposition to coeducation, which often came from conservative quarters in the 1970s, could call on a long and established tradition, thus meeting with broad support outside the sports movement, too. Coeducation seemed to challenge the gender order, and opponents considered this a danger but its advocates considered it a hope.
Very popular during this period were anthropological and phenomenological considerations that revolved around the “natures” and the naturally determined roles of men and women as well as around male and female movement patterns. The Dutchman F. J. J. Buytendijk was the most widely read representative (at least among European physical education specialists) of a gender anthropology based on the theory of polarity. He, for instance, regarded the game of soccer (known as football in Europe) as a demonstration of masculinity: “All attempts to make women play football have so far been unsuccessful.” Based on the premises of Buytendijk and those of his followers, girls and boys should be taught separately in different sporting disciplines, according to their “natural” motor skills. Feminist scholars refuted this approach with the argument that it has apparently been proved possible after all “to make women play football” and that it has been demonstrated furthermore that the same basic principles of movement apply to both men and women.
Coeducation opponents also focused their arguments on the physical differences, the different performance levels, and the different needs, interests, and behavior patterns of the two sexes.
Supporters of mixed PE lessons, among them reform-oriented educators and sport scientists, warned against overemphasizing gender differences in sports performances because there are no significant discrepancies in basic motor properties and skills before the onset of puberty, and even afterward most pupils, irrespective of sex, can be classed in the same, middle band of achievement. According to these supporters, the different sporting interests of boys and girls were the result of processes of socialization. Sport scientists in favor of coeducation emphasized the significance of social learning processes and wanted to convey a wide variety of bodily and social experiences in PE lessons. They saw mixed PE classes as a chance of furthering empathy and cooperation skills as well as, generally, equal opportunity between the sexes.
In addition to the gender issue, mixed PE lessons brought up fundamental questions about the purpose of physical education:
■ What should be learned and what should be taught in PE lessons and how?
■ Is it sufficient to teach motor skills?
■ Should competition and striving for the improvement of performances play a central role?
The debate about mixed PE classes petered out in the 1980s. A consensus could only be reached for primary schools, where coeducation in PE had already been practiced since the 1960s.
Spread of Coeducation
It is very difficult to get any information about the diffusion of mixed classes in PE in the different countries. In various developing countries and in Islamic cultures, PE is not even a subject in girls’ schools, but in many western countries coeducation is the norm in the classroom and the gym hall. Often the choice of mixed or single-sex education depends on the age of the children; coeducation is widespread in elementary schools. For example:
■ In the secondary schools of most German federal states, mixed PE lessons are possible if they appear beneficial from an educational point of view. In middle school (Grades 5 to 10), coeducation is regarded as particularly problematic, so mixed classes for girls and boys are likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
■ In Australia, after an upswing of coeducation, many schools now choose to provide single-sex PE to avoid the problems in mixed classes.
Attitudes and Evaluations
Results of empirical studies show that most students are in favor of coeducation in the classroom. They would only accept a separation of the girls and boys in certain subjects, and PE is one of these subjects named in this debate. Research about the attitude of pupils toward mixed classes in PE has been conducted in various countries with different results. Whereas in an American study, most girls voted for single-sex PE, PE lessons in mixed groups seemed to be largely accepted by German pupils. However, their statements depended on their gender and their age and varied by grade and the type of sport. Those confronted with this form of teaching had a more positive attitude than did other students. The attitude toward coeducation in sports is particularly ambivalent among girls, although they support mixed lessons more often than boys do. Girls have more anxiety about high standards, about making fools of themselves, and about being taunted by the boys, but they also hope to be acknowledged, win more esteem from the boys, and have more fun.
Coeducation that is more than an organizational measurement can only succeed if both pupils and teachers are willing to make the best of this form of teaching. Studies of the attitudes of PE teachers reveal that the readiness to teach sports in mixed groups and to connect this with pedagogical purposes depends on many factors, including the age of the pupils and the age and sex of the teachers.
Interviews with male and female PE teachers in the United States and Germany revealed fundamental attitudes toward coeducation in sports that were marked by skepticism. The main difficulties seen were:
■ The types of sports identified with one or other of the sexes
■ The corresponding differences in the motor skills required
■ The hierarchy of sporting values, with those of the boys at the top
In concrete terms, the teachers were concerned about the girls’ deficiencies in the ball games that were most popular among the boys and the boys’ refusal to participate in “unmanly” activities such as gymnastics and dance. One aspect of mixed PE lessons especially noted by women teachers was the aggressive behavior of (some) boys and the difficulty of keeping discipline. Both male and female teachers seem to feel that their training has not prepared them sufficiently for coeducation.
Critique Of Coeducation To “Reflected” Coeducation
Interest in mixed PE lessons faded in the 1980s, as coeducation in classrooms as a whole was attacked and the “equal opportunity” approach was challenged. The criticism was that girls were not able to follow their success at school with successful careers. Good academic achievement did nothing to boost the little self-confidence that girls have compared with boys, and mixed lessons seemed to exercise a negative influence on girls’ interests and opportunities. Empirical studies revealed that boys dominated the lessons, especially in science subjects, and that teachers gave considerably more attention to boys than to girls, not least because of disciplinary problems. Women education researchers demanded—from a position of “bias toward girls”—the abolition of coeducation or at least separate lessons in science subjects and PE. Whereas in the 1970s, coeducation opponents had feared that boys would be limited in their possibilities of athletic development, feminist sports scientists justified their rejection of coeducation by arguing that girls were marginalized in mixed PE classes.
Their arguments are based on the different “physical” culture of boys and girls resulting from specific male or female attitudes toward the body, body and beauty ideals, rituals, and techniques and practices of the body as well as from the gendered interests, experiences, competencies, wishes, and needs in the area of sports. Thus, both sexes have different strengths and different expectations for school sports, which reinforces, produces, and reproduces these gender differences. Generally speaking, the male values dominate in sports, so it follows that in school sports, the boys’ strengths are taken as the norm, whereas the girls’ strengths, which often lie in the gymnastic and rhythmical fields, are not valued very highly, either at school or in society as a whole. Moreover, as in the classroom, boys are more frequently noticed in mixed PE classes, thus boys, or at least some boys, dominate the class and control the environment, whereas girls and their needs are not taken seriously. Aggressive behavior of male pupils against girls, teachers, and other boys was a further argument against coeducation. Both male and female teachers tend to accommodate the interests of the boys, partly in an attempt to make them conform before they become troublemakers. Finally, among the arguments against coeducation in sports is the focus on the body. In sports, one has to present the body constantly; it is perceived, judged, compared, and talked about. This could be a major problem for girls, who tend to develop negative body concepts in the confrontation with the beauty and slimness ideals of Western societies.
PE teachers commonly find that many girls respond to their marginalization in mixed classes with disinterest, with resistance, and by dropping out.
This critique of coeducation led to numerous projects being carried out with separate classes for girls and boys in PE, but also in other subjects. As surveys have shown, however, such projects, especially the sex segregation in scientific subjects, did not meet with an entirely favorable response, either from boys or from girls. In addition, there are benefits connected with coeducation. Thus, in recent years, a reassessment of coeducation was initiated; the magic formula is now the concept of “reflected coeducation,” Reflected coeducation means teaching based on a reflection of gender issues and gender relations that takes differences seriously between the sexes and between other groups and individual students. Focusing on the specific needs of people, it aims at improving the potentials of individuals and groups. Reflected coeducation does not mean that girls are simply participating in the physical education of boys, but that the strengths of both sexes are cultivated while the weaknesses are accepted and compensated for. Strength and stamina as well as the self-confidence deriving from these must be imparted especially to girls, who are confronted with body and beauty ideals that focus on their appearance rather than on the capacities of the body. Creativity and rhythmic skills belong, as a rule, not to
the strengths of the boys who have been afraid to be marginalized in the boys’ groups as “sissies” if they participate in a typically girls’ activity. These fears have to be taken seriously, but a “degendering” of dance in new dance styles makes a reconciliation of masculinity and rhythmic abilities possible.
This new approach to coeducation allows choices between mixed and (temporary) separate classes depending on pedagogic considerations and the circumstances in a particular class or at a particular school.
In the 1990s, a further paradigm shift occurred when attention was turned to boys and problems such as difficulties in concentrating, hyperactivity, and aggressive behavior. Unrealistic ideals of masculinity, violence in peer groups, and the “feminization” of education seemed to have an unfavorable effect on boys’ intellectual and mental developments. The discrepancy between the norm of male superiority and boys’ own inadequacies seemed to become especially evident in mixed classes with girls. This is also true for PE especially where those boys who are not skilled are marginalized or even bullied. When this happens in front of the girls, the humiliation is even worse.
Coeducation in PE is still a contested area, and its success or failure depends on numerous and various factors. Coeducation—not only in school sports—can only succeed under certain conditions. If basic prerequisites are lacking, such as a good understanding between the pupils of a class, a safe and supportive environment, especially for girls, and a positive attitude among the teachers, then coeducation is a liability for both sexes, especially for girls. The chances of mixed school sports increase when intentional and reflected coeducation begins at primary school because the course is set for later development of “doing gender.” In addition, teachers must be sensitive toward gender issues and committed to and prepared for coeducation in their training.
The aim of coeducational school sports should be that boys and girls are given the opportunity to learn more about themselves and others, to understand gender and gender constructions in and through sports, and to act, interact, and participate in sports in a world that is not sex-segregated.
PE plays an important role in sports socialization and can thus contribute to the construction but also to the deconstruction of gender differences. Socialization means the appropriation of the social and ecological environment and self-training in and through cultural practices. Gender-specific sports engagement and the gender of a sport are social constructions and social arrangements. Sports can change their gender, and football is a good example: Whereas soccer (football) was viewed as an unfeminine sport until the 1960s, today it is one of the fastest growing sports for women in many countries of the world. Coeducation as a pedagogical means aims at providing equal opportunities, at transforming gender constructions, and, hence, at changing the hierarchical gender arrangements. This is especially difficult and challenging in PE lessons because they focus on bodies and, thus, on the basis and “markers” of masculinity and femininity. Moreover, sports is the arena in which masculinity and femininity can be convincingly enacted, “doing sport” is always “doing gender” with more or less emphasis on gender differences. It is not surprising, then, that mixed physical education lessons are connected with so many fears and so many hopes.
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