Sugar and spice and… math under-achievement?



Mathematics has a girl problem. Although girls achieve at equal levels to boys in middle and high school, many girls stop taking math as soon as they can. Girls are also much less likely than boys to enter math-intensive college majors and, later, careers. Gender researchers have shown that the root of this girl problem is not differences in innate math skills, but rather the contexts in which students learn math—contexts that give girls less encouragement and less confidence in their math abilities. Eager to address this girl problem, educators and policymakers usually respond: okay, so how do we fix the girls? But, according to Jo Boaler, it’s the math classrooms, not the girls, which really need fixing.

Boaler, a Professor of Math Education in Stanford’s School of Education, explained in a recent presentation why traditional ways of teaching math through rote memorization just aren’t cutting it. Her research shows that by simply changing the way math is taught, gender differences in math achievement and math confidence disappear.

Are girls really worse at math?

Boaler is often asked whether the “girl problem” is just a “gene problem.” Americans tend to understand gender differences in math achievement as unchanging—unchangeable—differences in the way that boys and girls think. Girls just aren’t “hard wired” for math, some say. But decades of research proves this assumption wrong. For one, gender gaps in math achievement have rapidly declined over the last century—far outpacing any possible shifts in human genetics. Additionally, gender differences are country-specific: in some European nations, boys’ and girls’ math performance is equal. In places like Iceland, girls outperform boys. If gender differences vary by culture, then can these differences really be genetic? Perhaps most compelling, researchers examined over 250 separate studies of gender differences in math and found no appreciable differences in ability once the number of math courses boys and girls took was held constant.

Many educational decision-makers now understand that girls’ preferences are not a result of genetics but rather the different ways boys and girls are treated by peers, teachers and parents vis-à-vis math. To address this issue, schools abound with math camps, extracurricular activities, and special (often pink) toys meant to develop girls’ confidence and interest in math. But, Boaler asks, if the learning contexts are the problem, why are most policies aimed at addressing gender differences in math still trying to fixing girls?

Fix the classrooms, not the girls

Educational environments in which girls and boys learn math need changing, says Boaler. The majority of math classrooms in the U.S. take a traditional approach to learning, where teachers introduce students to progressively more difficult mathematical procedures. Students are expected to memorize these procedures and then execute them on homework and tests. Math problems are usually the closed-ended type where a single answer can be circled at the end, and math procedures are usually taught by extracting them from real-world situations where a person might actually need to use those procedures. For most of us, save the obtuse word problem here and there, learning math meant scribbling down, memorizing, and recapitulating the long strings of equations our teachers wrote on the board.

Just because this is the way most of us were taught math does not mean it’s the only way, the best way, or the most gender equitable way. Boaler asks: what if we identified the learning environments that produced the most equitable and successful results and then used those learning environments as templates for the way math should be taught?

Boaler’s research actually identified such a learning environment. She studied approaches to math education at two otherwise nearly-identical high schools in England: “Amber Hill” and “Phoenix Park.” Amber Hill approached math the traditional way—students copied down formulas from the board, completed worksheets, and were split up into one of eight ability groups. At this school, boys did better in math than girls.

Things were different at Phoenix Park. Instead of a traditional environment, students learned math through collaboration, working together with their classmates to solve complex, multi-dimensional, open-ended problems. At Phoenix Park, boys and girls performed equally well in math and both boys and girls scored at higher levels than the students who had learned math traditionally.

But what about the boys?

Skeptics might argue that this erasure of gender differences was achieved because boys’ math performance slipped in the Phoenix Park context. But, that’s simply not the case—Boaler found that, although the improvement was smaller in magnitude, boys at Phoenix Park also scored slightly better than boys at Amber Hill. If a learning environment produces a more equitable learning experience for one group of students without negatively affecting the other group’s math achievement, why wouldn’t we adopt this new approach?

Boaler explains that there is a surprisingly high level of resistance among parents, teachers, and principals to this new way of teaching math. Part of this resistance may be due to the belief that math is a rite of passage of sorts, which builds character and perseverance in young people. “I struggled through my math courses,” some say, “and so should today’s students.” But the fact is, Boaler explains, “compared to other academic subjects—English, science, etc—the way we teach math to children is very different from the way math education researchers have identified as the most effective way to teach math.” By realigning math education to be more like the gender-equitable learning environments at Phoenix Park, we can move the dialog—and the blame—from what’s wrong with girls to how we can make math education better for everyone.

Of course, not all parents have the ability to place their children in gender-equitable math learning environments. For those parents, Boaler has an important piece of advice: parents should emphasize to their children that being good at math is an achievement, not a gift. Once students—especially girls—understand that being good at math is something that one can earn, they are likely to be more confident in their math abilities, and less willing to give up on math.