Education Blog

Girls and Math

by Sarah Travis, Upper School Math Teacher, St. John’s Episcopal School

In February of 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted a study and found that 15-year-old girls around the world outperform boys in science – except for in the United States, Britain and Canada.  Additional research indicates that it is social and environmental factors that shape girls achievements and interest in math and science.

The centuries old myth that math is too difficult for the average girl to master is still believed by many Americans.  Negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can lower girls’ test performance.  Researchers have also documented how stereotypes can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.  Consequently, America is falling behind other countries where women contribute equally to men in fields such as engineering, electronics, science and medical research – all professions that require competence in math.

The US Department of Education has found that girls “who have a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science are more likely to choose and perform well in elective math and science courses and to select math and science-related college majors and careers.”  The department also emphasizes that: “improving girls’ beliefs about their abilities could alter their choices and performance…particularly as they move out of elementary school and into middle and high school.”

Another factor inhibiting girls is self-confidence.  Girls tend to hold themselves to a higher standard than boys do in subjects like math, believing they have to be exceptional to succeed in “male” fields.  They also tend to be more fearful of making mistakes – believing that the ability to do mathematics is something that you either have or you don’t.  More confident students allow themselves to fail and engage in trial-and-error, which are fundamental to both math and science.  Developing a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can expand with experience and learning, is an important factor in helping girls to develop a greater sense of mathematical ability.

So, what can parents do to promote a more positive environment for their daughters?  Here is what some experts advise:

* Emphasize that we live in a scientific world.  The weather forecast, climate change, what we eat, illnesses and allergies, methods of transportation, the electronics that fill your house – are all areas that surround our kids.  Scientific theory fires their imagination when connected to current or domestic affairs, or when they can empathize.

* Understand that girls generally begin processing information on the brain’s left, or language side.  Girls tend to deconstruct math concepts verbally.  Help them talk it through.

* Girls are more responsive to color than boys.  Color-code toys and blocks at an early age.  Buy colored blocks and when you build with them make patterns.  As girls get older buy them Lego sets.  Buy the patterned coloring books (stained-glass windows, flowers, etc) or color by number books for travel.  Don’t just use color coding as a math activity either.  Integrate it into how your family keeps things organized.

* Have her read instructions and recipes aloud.  When she eventually performs science experiments this will help her break down the steps involved. It also helps with deconstructing more elaborate math problems down the road.

* Encourage her to learn things by heart.  Sometimes learning by rote (a multiplication table, for example) is a useful step towards internalizing a pattern.

* Never tell her the answer.  Ever.  The point of math is not so much to get the answer but to figure out how to get it. The more you do for your daughter the more you short circuit her self esteem. If she is stuck on something, keep asking questions. Ask her questions all the time in every context, especially domestic ones. “How do you think we should do this?” “Could there be another way?”

* Research shows that as girls get older they retain their mathematical and scientific abilities when applied to domestic scenarios.  So make your domestic scenario more mathematic and scientific. Shopping is filled with math problems, particularly if your daughter wants something that is too expensive.

* Never accept language such as “I can’t do this” or “I’m bad at math” and so on. She can do it. Math may be hard but it is not impossible.  It stretches her brain, just as physical activities stretch her body. The more she stretches the easier it gets.

* More books, less TV.  The more books she has access to, the better she will do – at math.  The more TV a girl watches, the worse she will do – at math.

* Present your daughter with positive role models (see previous statements about books and TV).  Find a female pediatrician. Girls often say they hate science but they love medicine. (The numbers of females entering medicine is increasing every year with women attracted by the empathic nature of medical science.) And never put down your own ability. Don’t tell your daughter that you are no good at math, or anything else along those lines

* Treat math homework like any other subject. Don’t give the message that it is harder than reading assignments or making maps. It’s not, it’s just different.

* Engage with your girls about the reasoning behind the problems. Math is one of those subjects where challenging ourselves is what counts. When working on homework, encourage your daughter to work on problems that don’t come easily. Talk through how she is approaching the problem.

* And finally, look at the color of her toys, her room, and her clothes.  How much of it is pink?  Diversify!  Follow this link to see a cool video and line of toys that encourages developing engineering skills in girls.

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