A Finnish sports psychologist says separate PE classes for boys and girls no longer have a place in education, as the separation is based on stereotypes that have little basis in reality.
Marja Kokkonen, a sports psychologist from Jyväskylä University, says the separation of genders in PE classes, particularly in Finland, is based on outmoded assumptions on the differences between boys and girls when it comes to physical capabilities and personality traits — specifically that boys are more energetic and aggressive than girls. She adds that continuing to separate boys and girls in PE classes reinforces stereotypes about children that are not founded on facts.
According to Finnish media outlet Yleisradio Oy, Kokkonen believes dividing PE classes according to gender further encourages outdated notions that boys are more athletic and more likely to enjoy sports and that girls are more fluid and more likely to appreciate dance. Kokkonen adds that other stereotypes don’t affect other classes in school. “Like the idea that girls have better heads for language, and boys are more mathematically inclined,” Kokkonen cites as an example.
The psychologist also expressed concerns over children who don’t identify with either gender, and how their placement within this dynamic can affect their well-being.
Finally, Kokkonen hit back on the argument that mixing genders in PE classes would be disadvantageous and even dangerous for girls, calling it a “pathetic rationale.”
“The school and its teachers are responsible for ensuring the safety of everyone there. Something is seriously wrong if someone in a school is ever really in danger. After all, the same logic could apply to chemistry experiments,” she said, according to Yleisradio Oy.
Marja Kokkonen is also a researcher working on a three-year project in Finland that aims to reduce gender bias and harassment in sports and fitness. She’s optimistic that her country’s educational system will eventually embrace mix-gender PE classes.
“[T]here are several Nordic /European countries with co-ed school PE; unfortunately Finland, which is a highly egalitarian country in other respects, comes a bit behind. This has started to change slowly (tens and tens of schools already have mix-gender PE through basic education, that is, grades 1 – 9), and I hope this development becomes faster in a near future,” Dr. Kokkonen tells Psychatory.
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The call for coed PE classes has been around for years. In 2013, Sian Lawson, senior lecturer in sports coaching at Northumbria University, also criticized segregated PE classes, which she described as a “historic hangover from Victorian values,” according to the Telegraph.
Furthermore, Lawson contested that many differences between girls and boys are due to cultural expectations.
“If everyone trains and competes on equal terms, the biologically slower can up their game, and if the fast naturally rise to the top no one should object,” Lawson said. “If we aspire to believe in individual variation over stereotyping, and equality of opportunity, then why not let our children start with that?”
A study in 2012 by Joel M. Stager (Indiana University) and Andrew C. Cornett (Eastern Michigan University) found that there is no athletic difference between girls and boys before puberty. In 2016, a longitudinal study that sought to explain why girls aren’t as engaged in sports as boys concluded that lower participation in physical activities among girls was associated with less favorable influence from schools and family members.