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Girls and Math: Breaking Down the Wall


Girls and Math: Breaking Down the Wall

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By Barbara Gottfried
Editor, MindEdge Learning

When it comes to girls and math, it often seems that a brick wall of sorts separates the two. And that brick wall is at least partly shaped by our childhood environments.

For example: in college, I took a statistics course in which women made up less than 5 percent of the class. I earned a degree in quantitative economics without ever having a female professor. In Children’s Gender Stereotypes About Math: The Role of Stereotype Stratification, Jennifer Steele finds that when girls are told a story about an adult mathematician, they are more likely to draw pictures of men—and more likely to say that men are more interested and capable at math than women.

But Steele made another important discovery. If the story involves a child mathematician, girls are more likely to draw a picture of a girl—and more likely to say that girls and boys are equally interested and good in math. Beyond that, a study by Professor Jessica Cantlon shows that the brain activity patterns of boys and girls, ages 3 to 10, are “indistinguishable” when performing math activities.

This research shows that there’s a major disconnect between how girls start out with math, and where they often end up.

How do we fix this problem? Let’s start in the earlier years, when girls believe they are equally capable of succeeding in math. What can we, as educators, do to keep this belief strong?

First, schools should consider adopting teaching methods that support the way girls learn. Next, there need to be more extracurricular opportunities for girls to use math. And women in STEM-related positions need to use their voices, actively sharing their contributions with others.

Certainly, a large part of teaching involves the classroom environment or culture. Encouraging everyone to feel comfortable with classroom participation is beneficial for all. But female teens are often less confident when answering math questions in class, while male teens tend to respond and try again. So how can schools create a safe learning environment for both genders to take academic risks?

It’s not as hard as you might think. Several strategies can promote more class participation:

  • With students reluctant to respond, teachers can ask questions that encourage being part of the process, such as “how would you begin?” They can give hints or additional steps; and calmly repeat or rephrase questions, when needed.
  • If a student answers correctly, it’s critical to provide positive reinforcement.
  • If a student answers incorrectly, it’s important to reward the effort and help the student understand the correct answer.

These are basic teaching tenets that can go a long way toward helping girls feel more comfortable in developing their math abilities.

The strategy of presenting incorrect responses as learning opportunities can be particularly beneficial, as it helps students shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. As defined by the psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is one that views hard work as the catalyst for intellectual growth. Within this framework, the idea that a student is born either “good in math” or “bad in math” does not exist. Rather, it is effort that helps students achieve success in academic fields such as mathematics. This mindset is what girls need to stay engaged.

What else can increase participation in math class? Research suggests that girls often perform better on word problems and open-ended questions than on multiple-choice questions, partly because those types of questions provide opportunities for written expression and showing one’s work. Classroom instruction, homework assignments, and exams can all include these question formats.

For example: rather than just asking for a computational answer, teachers can encourage students to explain their processes. They can reinforce the idea that critical thinking is equally important (if not more so) than getting the right math answer. Teachers can ask students to work in pairs or groups and then present answers using different modes, such as diagrams, equations, and words. Teachers can also encourage students to share real-life applications of math concepts. By using these methods, girls will respond better and they may ultimately stay more immersed in math-related areas.

There’s also a need to encourage girls to participate in math-related activities outside the classroom. School clubs, extracurricular activities, and summer programs can increase confidence and strengthen math skills in girls. These opportunities also allow for a “reframing” of mathematics. For instance, some programs invite participants to produce podcasts on female mathematicians, develop software, build robots, or design houses—in other words, to see math as a form of self-expression. Some girls may never be offered the opportunity to participate in these types of activities, but this is exactly what can open the doors that they have thought (mistakenly) were closed to them.

Extracurricular math programs also promote teamwork, strengthen leadership roles, and help girls to develop and achieve goals. Participation may even pave the way for girls to pursue math-related professions. David Famolari, managing director of Hearst Ventures, has noted that, “when they’re shown what engineers do, 76 percent of girls get interested in engineering.”

Finally, what better way to encourage girls to love math than by having female math teachers and mentors for math-related programs? As Bettina Chen, founder of the tech-toy startup Roominate, puts it: “Having role models is so key. It’s important for girls to see other women in STEM fields because it really lets them picture themselves there in the future. It helps them see that they can truly aspire to that dream.”

The ways to help girls achieve more in math are clear-cut. It’s never too early for educators to start paving this path to success—and toppling the proverbial brick wall with which so many of us grew up.

To take a look at the MindEdge Math Center, click here.

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