Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Helping girls learn Mathematics

Lately, I came across a few commentaries on this important topic in the popular media. I have also received a summary of a research project through my thesis supervisor. Naturally, as a teacher at a girls' school, I am very interested.

Just slug it out like the boys: The first serious attempt at tackling the issue brings us to an excellent Simpsons episode - girls just want to have sums! I always take the Simpsons seriously, and they seem to really care about education. If you know the episode, you can skip the next two paragraphs.

In this episode, Principal Skinner lets fly that he thinks girls are more likely to struggle with maths and science. He gets booed and, eventually, fired. The new principal, a feminist, divides the campus into two, so the boys do not drown out the girls with their loud voices.

In the girls' half of the campus, a different sort of maths is taught. One which is unlike that of men - something to be worked out and attacked. Instead, maths becomes something that engages the senses. Lisa gets fed up and disguises herself as a boy so she can learn "real math" . When she wins the school award for maths, she reveals herself to prove that girls are just as good as boys, but Bart declares: "The only reason Lisa won is because she learned to think like a boy! I turned her into a burping, farting, bullying math machine!"

The episode seems to ridicule the view that maths is defined in a way that has suited males over the ages. Maths is what it is, and everyone needs to learn it in the same way. I am very interested in your reading of this episode, as mine is not particularly thought out!

Encourage the parents to enrol them in British single-sex schools! An article in Melbourne's Herald Sun reports that girls who graduate from British single-sex schools earn 10% more than those who graduate from mixed schools. This was put down to the fact that they were more likely to take subjects such as Physics. I am really skeptical about such research as it compares means and masks a lot of important data such as whether the comparison was made between equally endowed schools.

Teachers should vary their instruction and assessment methods: The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers put out a "national statement on girls and mathematics" in 1990. In it, they suggest that teachers value certain modes of learning which appeal more to girls. Teachers should "make more extensive use of discussion methods, small group collaborative work and open-ended investigations". Assessment should "include projects, presentations, essays" etc...

I use these things (apart from essays) in my practice, however I have observed that boys tended to dominate group work and presentations when on a teaching round at a mixed school. There is no denying that I have seen my students' eyes light up whenever we have done something creative, involving the use of colours and patterns.

Teachers should use cues which make students concentrate on their strengths rather than gender: My thesis supervisor sent an email to his research group with a blurb from an American dude called "Richard Morin [Pew Research Center]". In it, he points out that research has shown that "women score much lower on math tests if they are first asked unrelated questions about gender issues. The phenomenon is known as 'stereotype threat'". This has led two other dudes, Matthew S. McGlone of Texas Uni and Joshua Aronson of New York University to conduct an interesting experiment.

They surveyed 90 college students, half of each gender. A third of them were asked why they chose to study at a private liberal arts college. "The goal was [to] nudge these young women and men into thinking how smart and accomplished they were." This group exhibited the least variance on a visual-spatial ability test which they took immediately after the survey.

You make up your mind. I will appreciate any input from readers on this topic.

Elias.


Technorati tags: Teaching Mathematics

6 comments:

Tracy W

said...

Teachers should vary their instruction and assessment methods: The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers put out a "national statement on girls and mathematics" in 1990. In it, they suggest that teachers value certain modes of learning which appeal more to girls. Teachers should "make more extensive use of discussion methods, small group collaborative work and open-ended investigations". Assessment should "include projects, presentations, essays" etc...

Is there any evidence this leads to better maths results?

Kids' eyes might light up, but that's not necessarily the same as them learning more maths.

The small group collaborative work particularly makes me wonder, as in my experience group work can easily mean only one or two students actually do the difficult stuff.

Tracy W

said...

The episode seems to ridicule the view that maths is defined in a way that has suited males over the ages. Maths is what it is, and everyone needs to learn it in the same way

Even if maths has developed in a way that is heavily influenced by the history of most men being mathematics, that doesn't mean that it should therefore be taught to girls in a different way.

An important part of maths at the more advanced levels is being able to communicate what you are doing to someone else. Consequently there are a set of standards, almost a language of mathematics. Any girl taught maths without taught this language would have massive difficulty accessing the history of mathematical knowledge or communicating her ideas to others (maths writing before the development of algebra and our conventions are very confusing).

One which is unlike that of men - something to be worked out and attacked. Instead, maths becomes something that engages the senses.

One of the things I enjoy about maths is that it has developed a new aesthetic sense in me. An elegant proof is as appealing as a great painting.

This sense is still perfectly compatible with actually solving problems (which I guess is what you mean by "worked out and attacked").

Incidentally I'm female and have a degree in electrical engineering (and I went to a single-sex girls school, where I don't recall doing any presentations or essay-writing in maths).

Elias

said...

Thanks a lot for your comments and perspective, Tracy. They are most appreciated.

Mr. Person

said...

Elias,

Congrats on your move to Beta.

GS

said...

I teach maths at a girls' school. It's not selective but a lot of the students are academically motivated. I'm pleased to report no observation of gender-stereotypical struggle with maths. I did prac at a boys' school with a similar culture and I reckon that the two schools would have a very similar profile in maths achievement.

I haven't taught co-ed so can only speculate, but I think it helps having only girls in the classroom. I can't explain why, but I think it helps.

Just found your blog today, and am enjoying going through all the posts.

Elias

said...

Welcome to the blog, GS. I am glad you're enjoying the posts. I will be returning the visit!