Trying to Add Up Girls and Math

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The Checkup

When I wrote about fending off math anxiety last month I learned both from the experts I interviewed and from people to whom I happened to mention the topic that math anxiety is found across all lines of gender, ethnicity and educational background. There are plenty of men and women out there, including the highly educated and the professionally aggressive (professors and corporate lawyers, say), who proudly — or shamefacedly — wave the math anxiety flag. Oh yes, that’s me, I don’t have a math brain — though the whole idea of a math brain is frowned on by those who study this topic.

There is a general assumption that women are affected more than men, and that math and math anxiety contribute to the barriers that keep women underrepresented in the STEM fields. In my own familial experiment, I have two sons and a daughter, and though everyone managed O.K. in math, the daughter was, without question, the math kid — though the very idea of “math kids” is considered part of the problem.

My daughter, who majored in math in college, feels that the key is that she attended an all-girls school from fifth grade through 12th grade, and isn’t sure she would have stayed with math if she’d gone to a coed school. I believe her — though the research literature doesn’t necessarily support her, from a statistical point of view.

That’s one of the interesting things about trying to think about girls and math: It involves questioning some of your assumptions about how children learn, and about what makes some topics harder or less accessible to lots of people. And then trying to look at research that tells you that your own perceptions and experience may not be reliable.

As far as math anxiety, “many many more girls and women than men are anxious,” said Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford, “and we know anxiety holds people back — there are still messages out there that math is for boys and not for girls.” Some of the anxiety, she said, may be transmitted by elementary school teachers, who are likely to be female, and are often themselves anxious about math. “We know that girls identify with their elementary teachers,” she said, and are more likely than boys to be affected by the teacher’s math anxiety, if it is present, contributing to what she called “the cycle by which this continues.”

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, pointed to the pressure created by the stereotype that girls aren’t good at math. “They come in feeling pressure that could affect their performance,” she said. “That can rob people of the cognitive horsepower they would have to perform at their best.” And this can be worst for the best students, she said. “Girls who come in with the most ability to work at a high level are most impacted.”

Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at New York University who studies children’s ideas on gender and ability, said that there is lots of variability in the distribution of men and women across fields in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. One key, he said, is whether it is perceived that in order to work in a certain field, a person needs to be brilliant, to have, even, a spark of genius. “When we surveyed academics across disciplines, in fields whose members said, yes, there is something innate, inborn, required for success,” he said, “it was particularly in those fields where we saw women underrepresented, also African-Americans.”

For math through high school, “there isn’t anything in the curriculum that any typically developing child shouldn’t be able to grasp,” he said. “The minute we start talking about who the brilliant ones are, it’s very easy to go from individual differences to group differences.”

And what about this whole idea of math brain and math kid? “Metaphors like math brain can create their own reality,” Dr. Cimpian warned. “We all fall on a certain continuum,” he said.

Dr. Boaler, the author of the book “Mathematical Mindsets,” said: “The message to all kids, girls and boys, is there’s no such thing as a math person.”

And what about my daughter’s belief that she owes a lot to being in math classes with no boys in them? Erin Pahlke, an assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., said, “often the girls in the single-sex schools have higher math achievement, better attitudes, lower levels of math anxiety, they often have better hopes for the future of wanting to take higher level math,” she said. “You say, this is incredible, single-sex schooling is the answer!”

But she was the first author of a 2014 meta-analysis representing the testing of 1.6 million students from 21 countries that found that among the high quality studies, the differences could be explained by looking at such factors as the different socioeconomic status of those choosing single-sex education, and at the pretest scores before the girls entered the single-sex schools as well as measures of school quality and resources.

Dr. Pahlke said that people tell her all the time, “my daughter or my niece went to a single-sex school and it was incredible — I would say to them, yes, I agree, you do see that, but the question is whether or not it’s due to the single-sex environment.” Instead, she said, “it’s due to being around girls who came in with higher math scores, or teacher quality differences, that’s what the research suggests.”

She said the popular idea that boys and girls learn differently is “not supported by the neuroscientific literature.”

“Most of the things that parents and kids believe about math learning are wrong,” said Dr. Boaler, who is the co-founder of Youcubed, a website that argues for a revolution in math teaching for all children, and offers resources to teachers, students and parents. In fact, maybe what everyone needs — girls and boys both — is a different kind of math teaching, with much less emphasis on timed tests, and more attention to teaching math as a visual subject, and as a place for creativity.

“The lovely thing is when you change math education and make it more about deep conceptual understanding, the gender differences disappear,” Dr. Boaler said. “Boys and girls both do well.”