Today's elementary and secondary students have never known a time without personal computers, video games, cell phones, and most importantly, the Internet. How do we rethink schooling for this Net Generation of learners who are no longer the students our educational system was designed to teach?
Our 21st-century knowledge economy requires new basic skills of all learners: Critical thinking/problem solving; collaboration/leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication; the ability to assess and analyze information; curiosity and imagination. As the head of an all-girl school, kindergarten through grade 12, I am struck by how female-centric many of these critical 21st-century skills are. What a unique position all-girl schools are in to further develop those innate strengths.
We already know that current graduates of all-girl schools have the edge on their peers graduating from co-educational institutions. Graduates of single-sex high schools have superior academic engagement, higher SAT scores, greater interest in graduate school, higher academic self-confidence, higher confidence in mathematical ability and computer skills, greater interest in engineering careers, a stronger predisposition toward co-curricular engagement, and greater political engagement than their peers graduating from co-educational high schools.
Though graduates of all-girl schools represent only a small fraction of all secondary school graduates, 25 percent of women in Congress and 33 percent of women Fortune 500 board members attended all-girl schools. Just a few notable Stuart graduates include Dr. Shelley Hearne '79, managing director, Pew Health Group, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Lorena Sayer O'Brien '88, managing director at JP Morgan Chase, and New Jersey Supreme Court nominee, Anne Murray Patterson '76.
By capitalizing on girls' innate strengths we can guarantee their success well into the future. The 21st-century survival skills of collaboration and communication are grounded in the ability to empathize — a skill for which girls' brains, according to experts, are hard-wired. In addition, their egalitarian communication style is focused on consensus building and, thereby, more collaborative in nature.
Since 1963, when Stuart was founded, Stuart's teachers have dedicated themselves to helping girls find and value their own voices. Whether it is a first grader asking a world-class author a question about his work or a sixth grader disagreeing with her teacher about the meaning of Dickens' Christmas Carol, we foster an atmosphere where girls speak out. Paradoxically, the same school culture fosters a reverence for collaboration: Partnerships thrive in an atmosphere where everyone is heard.
Another hallmark of 21st-century learners is effective oral and written communication. Over 30 years of studies find girls significantly stronger than boys in all areas of communication. Girls tend to talk earlier, have a larger vocabulary, and use complex language at the earliest ages (Feingold, 1993; Halpern, 2000; Hyde & Linn, 1988). The greatest differences manifest themselves during school-age years in the areas of spelling, overall language measures, and writing (Halpern, 2000).
As skills in initiative-taking and critical thinking grow in importance, all-girl schools provide the critical environment necessary for girls to master these skills. Numerous studies have shown that teachers respond to boys and girls quite differently in co-educational classes. Boys are afforded more opportunities to call out, speak out, and expand their ideas than girls (Good and Brophy, 1990; Marshall, 1997). By allowing boys to call out their answers more frequently, experts suggest that teachers encourage boys to take risks and simultaneously discourage girls from doing the same.
All-girl schools ensure these subtle biases don't impede girls' desire or ability to "go out on a limb" or "think outside the box." Dr. Rosemary Salomone, author of "Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling" lauds an all-girl educational environment for creating both an institutional and classroom environment "in which female students can express themselves freely and frequently, and develop higher order thinking skills."
At Stuart Country Day School, girls lead every club and every student organization: The senior class president is a girl. Field hockey is the most important fall sport — not football. And in the classroom, girls are at the center of every discussion. Over time, day by day, this atmosphere makes a profound difference.
In just one generation, the education of today's students is light years away from that of their parents. Different skills are required and different strengths must be nurtured. Harvard professor and leading educational author Tony Wagner warns that those "who do not understand the profound implications of teaching and testing these new survival skills are complicit in an unwitting conspiracy to put our nation at even greater risk of losing our competitive edge."
Single-sex girls' schools like Stuart offer an environment where these key skills are nurtured and honed so that their graduates can think critically, communicate, solve problems, empathize and lead well into the 21st century.