Coeducational versus single-sex physical education class: implication on females students self-esteem and participation.
In 1972, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act was introduced to bring equal opportunities and equality to the educational system of the United States (Treanor, Graber, Housner & Wiegand, 1998). This would bring an end to single sex classes and males and females would be taught together for the first time in physical education. Through this law, every student would now have the right to receive the same kind and type of physical education no matter if they were male or female. Coeducation physical education classes were implemented in an attempt to uphold this new regulation and perhaps with minimal thinking or planning relative to the impact this decision might have on the lives of young, adolescent girls (Derry & Phillips 2004). However, since the introduction of Title IX into the public schools physical education arena, a concern has been voiced regarding what is truly the best learning environment for our students. Is it an environment that is best designed around a coeducational classroom or is it a better and more equal environment in a single sex classroom?
Prior to Title IX it was not uncommon for male students to receive preferential treatment in the physical education classroom and with physical activity (Osborne, Bauer & Sutliff, 2002). This preferential treatment came in the way of better facilities and equipment, often leaving girls with second hand equipment or a practice schedule which worked around male teams practice time. (Osborne, et al., 2002) All of this changed with the passage of Title IX. Female students were finally going to be seen as equals in the very male dominant field of physical education and physical activity. Even though the law now has requirements that females and males have equal opportunities to participate in physical education, we must wonder are we reaching the intended benefits.
Researchers have debated this issue for years, debating both sides to determine what is better for the students. Koca (2009) reported "for example, many researchers have claimed that coed physical education (PE) provides equal opportunities for participation and allows females and males to socially interact." This same argument has been cited by several other researchers, (Colgate, 1999; Davis 1999; Griffin, 1984; Knoppers, 1988). On the other side of the argument, researchers such as Olafson (2002) identified the perceived social interactions in the coed classes are exactly what turns adolescent girls off from participating in the current coed physical education classes.
Researchers interviewed students to try to determine their opinion on which is the better physical education class: either coeducational class or non-coed classes. One such study by Treanor, Graber, Housner and Wiegand (1998) asked students at the end of the year following both coeducational and single classes what they preferred. They found that students tended to favor same sex classes over the coeducational classes. However, the note was made from Treanor, et al. (1998) that their results alone could not conclude that same-sex classes are best for middle school physical education. Reasons given by the students for why they preferred single sex classes included more practice time, better behavior, better competition, and less fear of injury. The results of Treanor, et al. were supported by findings of Lirggs (1994) and Derry (2002). In Lirgg's 10-week basketball study it was documented that both males and female middle school student's preferred same-sex physical education. In Derry's research it was reported an overwhelming 75% of students studied stated they prefer a single-sex class. Also, in Derry's research she found that 84% of girls that were already in single-sex classes said they would want to continue in that same environment over having to participate in coed physical education.
As children age they are developing less into physically active adolescents and more into inactive adolescents. The problem has been documented to be most prevalent among preadolescent and adolescent girls (Harmon & Ratliff, 2005; as cited in Sallis, Prochaska, & Taylor 2000; as cited in Sarkin, McKenzie, & Sallis, 1997). Results have shown the proportion of girls who were active decreased from 31% in 9th grade to 17% in 12th grade (Hannon & Ratliffe). Similar results were shown in Treanor, et al. (1998) study which found "males maintained a relatively high level of 'liking' physical education across three grades of middle school; they had a mean of 3.31 in the sixth grade to a mean of 3.19 in the eighth grade. On the other hand, females exhibited a disturbing drop from a mean rating of 3.1 in the sixth grade to 2.48 in the ninth grade, a decrease of 21%." Felton, et al. (2005) also found that only 67% of ninth grade girls and 45% of 12th grade girls reported participating in vigorous physical activity for 20 minutes three or more days per week.
The question now needs to be addressed, what do females dislike about physical education in middle school and high school that is leading to such huge drops in participating in physical activity? It has been hypothesized that the perceived lack of physical activity could be related to unpleasant experiences in the physical education setting (Hannon & Ratliffe, 2005). Research has also indicated that this is particularly true among adolescent females in coeducational physical education classes (Hannon& Ratliffe; Osborne, et al. 2002).
Adolescence, a time of dramatic change, is one of the most difficult times in the life of a young girl (Whitlock, 2008). It represents a dynamic, developmental period when girls make important choices about life-style behaviors, including diets, physical activity, sexual activity, tobacco use, alcohol, and other drugs that can influence their health and well being throughout adulthood (Whitlock; The Office of Women's Health, 2004). Developmental changes which are often traumatic for young adolescent females are problematic because of hurtful comments and incidents of sexual harassment which occur within many coeducation environments (Derry & Phillips, 2004; as cited in Garcia, 1994; Griffin, 1983, 1984; Lee, Carter, & Xiang, 1995; Pipher, 1994; Sadker & Sadker 1994; The Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992). One girl in Olafson's (2002) stated, "like they don't know the emotional pain they cause when they call you bad names." The student was referring to male peers in their coeducational physical education class.
Olafson (2002) found that girls stated they skip physical education because they feel that it's totally embarrassing. Two students in Olafson study reported that "boys they insult you and say mean stuff. The boys ... they have a big mouth. "Like they started commenting on our chest in grade six." In order to prevent having to take part in any class activities, Olafson found girls to have developed several different ways to get out of participating in coed physical education. These included such things are skipping class, having a parent write a note to be excused from class, disappearing into the change room after attendance had been taken, or simply refusing to change into gym clothes (Olafson). In addition to making comments on their female peer's body type, male students have been found to have a tendency to put girls down. Constantinou, Manson, & Silverman's (2009) research found girls reporting that boys belittle girls and show very little respect for girls' abilities. For example it was found that they yell out 'you stink,' but they usually won't say it to their guy friends (Constantinou, et al.).
Self-esteem as defined by Eriksson, Nordqvist, & Rasmussen (2008) is how much someone likes himself or herself as a person. Debate, Gabriel, Zwald, Huberty, & Zhang (2009) continued to define self-esteem as a construct that comprises believing in oneself, feeling good about oneself, and valuing oneself. Research regarding the association between self-esteem and physical activity has suggested girls' self esteem influences participation in physical activity (Debate, et al.).
One issue that has always been a factor in adolescent girls self esteem being either positive or negative is a girl's body size and type of body they have. "I avoid certain activities at school because of the way I feel about my body" was reported by one female student (Olafson, 2002). In coeducational classes girls have been found to put more pressure on themselves in order to have that perceived perfect body type and imagine. Females were found to compare their bodies to perfected images that have become dominant reality; participants were also subject to the evaluative gazes of their peers (Olafson; as cited in Bartky 1990). For example, "girls are expected to be graceful, always in control, be able to do basically everything. Even if a girl gets a red face from running too much, they're expected to be calm and be able to look good all the time," (Olafson). It was continued that if you do have a red sweaty face, the guys are like, "Ooh yuck! What have you been doing?" (Olafson)
Besides girls not wanting to be criticized for the way they look in physical education by their male peers it has been found that the competitive nature and size of boys is another turn off for girls in coeducation physical education. Derry (2002) found that boys', controlling the activity environment, was causing girls to decrease their levels of participation in class. In coed classes girls have made note that boys have the tendency to take over class. For example, "Sometimes the guys don't pass to you like they should. They think, since they're guys and you're girls, that the girls aren't good at anything," (Derry) Koca's (2009) study found a similar theme in which female students said "I do not want to play with boys in PE. For example, if you want to play volleyball with boys, you will not have a chance to touch the ball." In addition male students said "Football? Basketball? I can't imagine playing with girls. Girls are always complaining about something in PE. I think they are not suitable for activities that are rough and competitive" (Koca).
Additionally, the physical size and strength differences of boys as well as their more competitive and aggressive style intimidated many girls in coed physical education environments (Derry, 2002). Constantinou, et al. (2009) found that many girls identified themselves as "athletic" and "competitive." In which female students who were athletic did enjoy a coed environment because they said it made physical education more interesting and fun (Constantinou et al.). A similar finding was found by Olafson (2002) who found that several female students admitted that they enjoyed physical activity. The question asked by Olafson then is something amiss when physically active girls refuse to participate in physical education classes?
In physical education there is an open environment where each child's abilities is on display for their peers to evaluate them (Derry & Phillips, 2004; as cited in Kunesh et al., 1992). Derry & Phillips cited (Monagen's, 1983) research that identified a difference in playing styles for girls and boys, and that the interaction styles of girls and boys were often incompatible in the physical education environment during game play. Results were found that girls would give away their turns or equipment to appease the more aggressive nature of boys which results in girls receiving less engaged skill learning (Derry & Phillips; as cited in Garcia, 1994). Why would girls so freely just want to give up their equipment and turns to boys when in coed physical education classes?
In Constantinou, et al. (2009) research found that girls participation in and attitude toward physical education was influenced by their peer's. Girls stated they were annoyed when boys became too competitive and neglected to see physical education as a participatory and learning experience (Constantinou, et al.). "Oh, they're obnoxious sometimes, and they don't follow the rules as well as the girls do, and like don't listen.. Just get out of line sometimes. They get too competitive, and it's not fun. They get all mad when they lose. It's not fun.it's just a game! You want to be competitive but not too much" (Constantinou, et al.). This was similar to findings by Osborne, et al. (2002) who reported that two out of six female students responded that males were less cooperative during coed physical education. A female student reported: "Sometimes they [boys] don't wanna cooperate. They just wanna run around and do their own thing" (Osborne, et al.)
There have been research findings that have shown the benefits of single-sex classes, but at the same time there have been several research reports which would support the idea that physical education should remain coeducational. When students were asked what they liked about coed physical education, an overriding theme was they were able to interact with the opposite gender (Osborne, et al. 2002). It was also reported that coed physical education may be more beneficial to all students because they are exposed to a variety of diverse ideas from both genders. However, a majority of student responses indicated that perhaps non-coed physical education has more advantages overall (Osborne, et al).
When given the opportunities to pick groups or partners when in a coeducational environment most girls and boys preferred to pick groups that were based along their gender lines. When female students were asked to comment on why this occurred, one student responded, "It just seems like they're more considerate because they know how you feel and they're more at your level. I'm more comfortable with girls than I am with guys, so I always look for a girl to be with," (Derry 2002)
Same-sex and coeducational physical education classes revealed quite different climates, and furthermore were perceived differently depending on gender (Lirgg, 1994). The issue that we as physical educators need to address is what environment is the best for our students. Clearly from the research provided here, it appears more studies needs to be performed to find out which is truly the right way to group our students in physical education. To date no one research study has been able to say with 100% that there is a benefit to our students to continue coeducation teaching or advantage to move back into the single sex classes. What we can conclude is that if we are going to continue to teach in coeducation classes and our male students more welcoming to the girls participation in the activities. By providing our female students an environment that gives them more self confidence we can hopefully reverse the current trend of decreasing physical activity participation.
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Debate, R., Pette Gabriel, K. Zwald, M., Huberty, J., & Zhang, Y (2009). Changes in psychosocial factors and physical activity frequency among third-to eighth-grade girls who participated in a developmentally focused youth sport program. A preliminary study. Journal of School Health, 79(10), 474-484.
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Whitlock, S. (2008). What happens in the gym? The gym environment and the self-efficacy of middle school girls. Kentucky Newsletter for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 44(2), 6-10.
Cynthia Anne Furrer, Health and Physical Education Teacher, South Lakes High School; Fairfax County Public Schools. BS in Ed Indiana University of Pennsylvania: Health and Physical Education; MS student West Virginia University: Physical Education.