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Ew, Math

January 26, 2010

If you  had told my 14 year old self I would grow up and have a career primairly based in math, I would probably have rolled my eyes at you.  (Which I might still do now, I never really lost the eyeroll.)  At the time, I for some reason believed that I was bad at math, or that it was too hard or something.

I actually used a chart in my math teacher’s classroom to figure out what career would allow me to take the least amount of college level math possible.  (Lawyer.) So I decided on this career early on in HS.  (Only to later discover that I HATED being forced to write.)

So I found the study my boss sent me this morning particularly interesting, from the LA Times write up:

First- and second-graders whose teachers were anxious about mathematics were more likely to believe that boys are hard-wired for math and that girls are better at reading, a new study has found. What’s more, the girls who bought into that notion scored significantly lower on math tests than their peers who didn’t.

So really it is all my teacher’s faults that I didn’t like math, or something.
From Scientific American:

Although there was no difference among the girls’ and boys’ math improvement, the researchers found that the girls, but not the boys, whose achievement did lag were also the students who acquired math gender biases during the school year. In the gender belief test, these girls drew a boy doing well at math and a girl at reading. Moreover, these changes in gender beliefs were found to correlate with the teacher’s degree of math anxiety (but not her math ability).

Of course the way the study is framed “Female teachers anxious about math make female students anxious about math” puts a lot of blame on teachers and ladyfolks in general for having math anxiety.   Some of the younger teachers may have been young enough for “Math is Hard” barbie, so should we really be surprised that they have anxiety about math?

Which brings me to my next point.  Math is a skill.  When I was young I remember having the impression that Math was something you got, or you didn’t, but that isn’t true.   Math is a skill the same way playing an instrument, knitting, writing drawing etc are skills.  You get better at it by practicing and by using it, by pushing yourself to try new things with it.  People who are anxious about math will be bad at math because they are avoiding it, not because they have some “bad at math” gene.

People who think they are bad at math need to do more, not less math. Just like someone who is bad at guitar needs to practice more, not less. Which is why I think making early ed teachers take more math classes is a great idea.  (I actually think EVERYONE should take more math classes.)

What I think is really key about this study, especially for feminists,  is that it clearly shows that some gender role based behaviors are learned.  The idea that girls are bad at math is picked up on by students and affects their performance fairly quickly.

If it only takes is 9  months for a girl to learn the idea that “girls are bad at math” and for that idea to affect her performance.  How exactly are they supposed to avoid learning all the other little messages out there for them?  “Girls like pink” is the first one that comes to mind.

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11 Comments
  1. This is interesting to me, because I have HUGE math anxiety, and yet I refuse to believe that I am bad at math.

    I’m actually not bad at math, at all. What I’m bad at is doing math in front of people on the fly, because I’m shaken by my fear that I’ll be bad at it and they’ll think I’m stupid.

    On my own, I do math just fine.

  2. Hehe….. When people expect me to quickly add numbers on the fly I always say “I’m good at math, I’m bad at arithmetic.” (Also, it always reminds me of those horrible games they made us play in grade school featuring proving you suck at arithmetic to your entire class.)

  3. As a mathematician, I wholeheartedly concur with your conclusion that math is a skill, and that developing the right behaviors and approaches to math will make one be able to pick it up, not by having the ‘right’ genes, gender, etc. Teachers are crucial when it comes to instilling the right behaviors and approaches — it’s the difference between teaching someone to solve a word problem by trying to figure it out all at once like an algebra problem (which is very hard) or to portion it up and write it down as an equation or set of equations, first (much easier).

    I didn’t learn the latter until my honors college physics class, btw. :/

  4. Anna permalink

    Things like this make me realise how lucky I was to be born to my parents, who told me I could do anything I set my mind to. In year 8, I was constantly told I was bad at maths by my teacher at the time. So I was bad at maths. Then I went to year nine, with a different teacher, and I was AMAZING at maths. Teachers really do have an incredible effect on their students, but at the same time when I got that same first teacher in year ten, I blew him out of the water with my mad quadratic skills. He didn’t affect me anymore.

    What I’m getting at is that students are really affected by what they believed. I was bad at maths at thirteen because I believed I was. I was good at maths after that because I KNEW I was good.

    Teachers don’t have an affect, it’s the belief that does.

  5. Absolutely Anna, And this research actually bore that out. The female students who didn’t buy into the whole “Girls suck at math” concept preformed just as well as the boys. Belief really is the key element.

  6. Anita permalink

    I was good at calculus and statistics, but angles and three-dimensional shapes make my head hurt. I just can’t quite hold onto all the pieces at the same time. Now, there’s ways around this, but the classes may not allow time for alternative approaches in geometry (much less O-chem, which has a similar amount of “this thing is actually not represented by the diagram” head hurting.)

    I don’t know if it’s genes or what, and it doesn’t seem to be a gender divide, but my brain definitely prefers one type to another. So, yeah: math – a whole lot of *different* skills. Arithmetic is totally different than other kinds of math, which is why I’m glad there’s a calculator built into my computer. And Google.

  7. Luey permalink

    Another aspect to this issue is learning disorders in girls. I was terrible at math throughout school. Hated it, was confused and upset by it, didn’t do well in it, etc. I actually had a math teacher in high school tell my parents that I shouldn’t go to college because of how badly I was doing in his class. (BTW, I could read before starting kindergarten and had been placed in advanced level courses since elementary school, had no trouble getting into and completing both undergrad and grad school – this teacher just had his head up his own ass). Add to this that my dad has his doctorate in physics and spent hours trying to help me with my math homework, with nearly every session ending in tears (me, not him).

    I was diagnosed with dyscalculia (a numbers and math related learning disability) a few years ago. I was SHOCKED. I fit almost every single symptom, which includes reversing numbers and having a hard time with cardinal directions, telling time, counting change, reading music (despite, in my case, 12 years of piano), and remembering schedules and names. This translates into poor arithmetic skills and math concept retention – I could do something one day and completely draw a blank the next. Interestingly, people with dyscalculia often have excellent written and verbal skills.

    The person who diagnosed me told me I was a TEXTBOOK case. Imagine how different my experience with math could have been if I had been recognized as learning disabled when I was very young? I wonder how much my missed diagnosis had to do with my gender? It is assumed that women are bad at math, have poor senses of direction and spatial skills, as well as good verbal skills. Even poor athletic coordinating is a symptom! When I fit this profile, no one batted an eye. Would they have, if I was a boy?

  8. JennyRose permalink

    My daughter is already getting this message from friends and family. She is great with reading and language and struggles with math. I would say she is at or a tiny bit below grade level. It infuriates me no end when a friend whois an English teacher encourages the canard that a student who is good at language cannot be good at math and that is OK because that is the way it is. No. My daughter may have natural preferences and gifts but there is no reason that she cannot be good at math and language.

    This is not the premise everywhere. I know many women who work in engineering and other math-related professions. These women all grew up in Eastern Europe during Communism and math-related training was highly encouraged. There society needed engineers etc, these women wanted to advance beyond HS. They did not grow up with sexual politics around math and as such it didn’t matter. Math comes with a lot of baggage here and so much of it is completely sexist and untrue.

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