Sugar and spice and… math under-achievement?

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Sugar and spice and… math under-achievement?

Why classrooms, not girls, need fixing

by Erin Cech on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 11:07am

Professor Jo BoalerMathematics 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 fix 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.

Elementary school student working out a math problemJust 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. 


Book: what's math got to do with it?Dr. Jo Boaler is a Professor of Mathematics Education in the Stanford School of Education. Her work has appeared in news outlets in the US and the UK, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Her most recent book, What's Math Got to Do With It? (2008) is aimed at increasing public understanding of effective math teaching and learning. Boaler’s presentation was co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Stanford University School of Education, and the Education and Society Theme House (EAST) as part of the winter symposium, Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism. Many thanks to Professor Christine Min Wotipka for organizing this event.

Responses to Sugar and spice and… math under-achievement?

Peggy Ludwick's picture
03 April, 2012 Peggy Ludwick (not verified)

Thanks for this great article. I've been doing gender equity work in the schools for the past 30 years, focusing on building interest, confidence, and achievement in math/science for middle school-aged, under-served girls.These have been special, grant-funded, after school programs (GEMS - Girls Empowered by Math and Science). Unfortunately, things haven't changed all that much in the traditional classroom, as you so aptly pointed out. And, I'm constantly amazed at the number of women who, as mothers, throw up their hands and say, "I was never good in math", in front of their daughters! I've always told all of my children and students: "You need to take 4 years of high school math and science to better prepare for college, have access to more/higher paying career options, and be a math/science literate citizen capable of making informed decisions in both your public and private lives. You don't have to like math to take math." If I hadn't had intro to calculus in HS, I never would have gotten through my calculus classes in college, which were required for my major in Microbiology and Public Health.
I did post-graduate work at Stanford University Medical Center in 1970 - 72. I'll be visiting my youngest son in Palo Alto, who is also a Stanford grad (in Film and Media Studies!), at the end of April. I would love to visit the Clayman Center on Monday, April 30th. Would that be possible?

Anonymous's picture
04 April, 2012 Anonymous (not verified)

If it weren't for an AP level Calculus course at my high school, I would have never majored in math in college. I was shy in class and never considered myself a "wizard" at math. I had many women math teachers, which may subconsciously broke gender stereotypes. Being a bland subject taught in public school, I would have never thought I would have come this far with it. I am accepted into a graduate program in Mechanical Engineering. I just wish there were more women in my classes! The boys are incredibly male centric in their humor and approach to solving. Many assume a women cannot pass these classes. The encouragement level and empathy from peers is non-existent. If my girlfriends were in my classes, I would have a better time and want to be there learning more.

I teach K to 7 Math for an online gifted math program through Stanford. The online environment allows students to work at their own paces through an advanced curriculum. 66 out of 152 (or 43%) of my currently active students are female.

Aspen Anne's picture
06 April, 2012 Aspen Anne (not verified)

An interesting question to research simultaneously would be to look at how changing math teaching impacts graduation rates for boys.

I was one of few female math majors at Stanford and always wondered why more girls weren't there with me. Now, I am the mother of several young boys. They are being taught with the collaborative model and the girls all around them are succeeding as suspected. Somewhat sadly, those same girls are the only ones being honored at assemblies for their grades.

Tayyab's picture
06 April, 2012 Tayyab (not verified)

Did you intentionally leave out the part as to why the traditional style of teaching math, in some sense, favors boys or am I missing something? Also, do the results not just show that girls are better at solving open ended problems in collaborative teams compared to problems with closed form solutions?

Elliott Bloom's picture
07 April, 2012 Elliott Bloom (not verified)

It appears that European math and science teaching methods not only achieve better results for girls, but for everybody. Why don't we broadly adopt those methods in the US?

Christian Hiebert's picture
08 April, 2012 Christian Hiebert (not verified)

“Instead of a traditional environment, students learned math through collaboration, working together with their classmates to solve complex, multi-dimensional, open-ended problems.”

So working together in groups proves to be the best option for both genders but there seems to be resistance from teachers, parents, and students because they all want to see who has the biggest penis. What a surprise.

So what I’m perceiving here is that the priority is on seeing who’s the best at math; not necessarily teaching it.

Anita J's picture
10 April, 2012 Anita J (not verified)

Great article! As a woman, I always wondered why I felt intimidated by Math - and its great to know its just the way the content is presented. Now, it makes me wonder about the math that included on standardized (& mandatory) tests! Hmmm. I encourage studies such as this to go further because the education system needs some revampment!

jack's picture
06 May, 2012 jack (not verified)

It is not just the girls who benefit when rote teaching of math and science is changed to discoveries that invoke retroduction not deduction. Intuition and subconscious putting things together are more important to research and development than number crunching.

If girls are the reason behind better teaching of science and math, then more power to them.

Sarah's picture
29 May, 2012 Sarah (not verified)

I think that girls have "caught up" to boys in math in high school. Three students were accepted from our high school to MIT and they are all girls. One person was accepted to Stanford and she is a girl. If you look at the girls in middle school now, they are passing the boys. Do you have any data on how boys are being left behind now in middle school and high school? I never see scholarships specifically for boys;
they are always for girls.

Evan's picture
15 June, 2012 Evan (not verified)

When you visit a school there are lots of examples of things on display that the staff and students are proud of; but how many examples of maths are to be seen?

When you consider the popular culture in the West, it is a wonder that anyone pursues maths.

I feel it would help the gender inequality problem to understand why the boys that take maths and science choose to do so.