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Little girls are made of sugar and spice, and learn that math is not nice

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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One of the first lessons that girls often learn in elementary school is that boys are better at math.

Although this incorrect lesson is certainly not part of the curriculum, first- and second-grade teachers, who are predominately female and math-averse, communicate that math is not their strong suit to some female students, according to a study published January 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers found that the girls who got the idea that math ability falls along gender lines had the worst achievement in this subject during the school year.

"We speculate that having a highly math-anxious female teacher pushes girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which, in turn affects girls’ math achievement," wrote the authors.
 
The research team, led by Susan Levine, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, based its study on two key pieces of information. College students majoring in early elementary education in the U.S., of whom 90 percent are female, hold the highest level of math anxiety compared to students majoring in other subjects. And elementary students emulate the behavior of same-gender adults more than opposite-gender adults.

To examine the impact of teachers’ math anxiety on students’ math achievement, Levine’s group gave 65 female and 52 male first- or second-graders in five public schools in one Midwestern school district an arithmetic-based tests at the beginning and end of the school year. In these sessions, Levine’s team also asked the students to draw pictures of a student who did well in math or reading and explain if that student was a boy or girl.

At the end of the school year, the researchers also graded the students’ teachers, all of whom were female. The teachers were asked to complete a math exam. Levine’s group also evaluated the teachers’ math anxiety by asking them to rate how anxious they would feel in various situations, such as reading a cash register receipt or studying for a math exam.

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).

Levine’s team points out that these young children are also learning gender-based attitudes from parents, siblings and peers. But because teachers are probably confirming or strengthening sexist ideas about mathematical ability, the researchers suggest that elementary teachers be required to take more than the minimal college math courses. "More care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators," the authors wrote. 

Image courtesy of iStockPhoto/Pears2295





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  1. 1. GlobalCitizenNYC 3:28 pm 01/25/2010

    Test results show that girls actually do better than boys on standardized tests and on the math section of SAT, etc. Girls of this young generation (ages 5-18) have so many more role models of women in mathematical and quantitative careers than we did in the 70s/80s: Wall Street, business owners (women-owned businesses create more jobs than Fortune 1,000 combined!), CPAs, scientists, IT professionals, new media technologists, etc. Women get more graduate degrees and now starting to make their way up the Ivory Tower and corporate ranks into substantive leadership positions. With leadership and influence comes the ability to change the landscape for girls coming up the ranks and encourage more girls to pursue these careers. These careers are exciting, intellectually stimulating and global (you choose that route)!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bill Case 4:51 pm 01/25/2010

    I would be interested in any studies that definitively show boys/men are better at maths than girls/women. It would also be interesting to see that if there is a difference how much of that difference might be innate.

    I have always thought of math as an additional language with its own grammar, vocabulary and symbols. The object manipulation and mathematical concepts part of the brain being only partial components of total mathematical thinking. The language centres of the brain are needed to make up the other part. That is, thinking in math might be slightly different between males and females but the efficacy should end up the same.

    I think what this article is showing is the all too common willingness of females to accept the males’ view of the world.

    Link to this
  3. 3. way2ec 5:56 pm 01/25/2010

    And given that 90% of early education majors are women, seems both men and women have already internalized even deeper "gender based stereotypes" about being caregivers, educators, etc. Is there a nurse in the house?

    Link to this
  4. 4. way2ec 5:59 pm 01/25/2010

    And given that 90% of early education majors are women, seems both men and women have already internalized even deeper "gender based stereotypes" about being caregivers, educators, etc. Is there a nurse in the house?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Elegia 6:03 pm 01/25/2010

    There is no difference between the math ability of males & females (for which see http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=no-gender-gap-in-math-10-01-06).

    I did fine in math until I got to high school where I was convinced by a poor teacher that I was bad at it. Later, in college, I was encouraged to recognize my math abilities by stronger, more enthusiastic teachers. I went on to get A’s in trigonometry & calculus to my great surprise & pleasure.

    Poor approaches to teaching & teachers who discourage can do great harm.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Badari 8:23 pm 01/25/2010

    This article is not necessarily about math skills, but about gender-biased feelings towards math. You just have to look around my mechanical engineering class to notice the lack of women in the math heavy program, even though the women that are there tend to do quite well.

    Link to this
  7. 7. biorover 9:03 pm 01/25/2010

    "Researchers found that the girls who got the idea that math ability falls along gender lines had the worst achievement in this subject during the school year." I like and agree with the article, but I feel SciAm needs to watch their scientific writing and keep up to scientific standards- this statement obviously raises questions of causality; does it not make as much or more sense that females doing poorly at math would be more likely to buy into the gender bias?

    Link to this
  8. 8. Elegia 11:41 pm 01/25/2010

    @ Badari: Maybe I didn’t make it clear that I’m female. I would’ve thought my name was a dead giveaway, but maybe I’m being gender-biased. My point was precisely that (not about math skills but about gender bias): My high school algebra teacher wasn’t comfortable with girls doing well in math & was convinced they didn’t. He convinced me, too. It took me years to discover that he was wrong & undo the conditioning. Once I did, I flew. :)

    Link to this
  9. 9. Some Random Guy 6:19 am 01/26/2010

    I think that more damaging than anything else, is the constant adversarial ‘gender war’ that is constantly being perpetrated upon society. Mainly from the popular media, by vicarious learning, and even outright misogyny and misandry perpetrated by individuals and indoctrinated into the next generation, this attitude is ultimately detrimental to society.

    Human beings have to learn that there are gender differences, whether physical or psychological, and there are also areas where the genders are equal. Our efforts, as a community, would be better spent getting to the facts of these differences and equalities and using that knowledge to capitalise on our strengths, both as gender groups and as individuals.

    Ulitmately, I don’t care if my mechanic is male or female. However, if they’re incapable of doing a decent job, I ain’t going back.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Dr. Ernest 1:58 pm 01/26/2010

    The full impact of stereotypes is difficult to comprehend unless you are a member of the group who is believed to lack the necessary intellect to handle a particular challenge. If this is not true, then school system across our country would be filling the minds of African American males with messages about how they can be like our president and go to Harvard for a great education. I guess the ceiling that separates those who are at the top of the intellectual playing field, mostly white males, is made of reinforced concrete rather than glass. If it was made of glass, then females (and people of color) could at least see that the playing field is not fair and witness how our nation has outsourced everything, including stereotypes about whether it’s best to have male or female teachers help our students learn math. I wonder if this issue ever comes up in countries where students are excelling in math and science. Heck, with 85% of teachers being female, I wonder if we should start worrying about the impact of our teaching force on gender identity.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Dr. Ernest 1:59 pm 01/26/2010

    The full impact of stereotypes is difficult to comprehend unless you are a member of the group who is believed to lack the necessary intellect to handle a particular challenge. If this is not true, then school system across our country would be filling the minds of African American males with messages about how they can be like our president and go to Harvard for a great education. I guess the ceiling that separates those who are at the top of the intellectual playing field, mostly white males, is made of reinforced concrete rather than glass. If it was made of glass, then females (and people of color) could at least see that the playing field is not fair and witness how our nation has outsourced everything, including stereotypes about whether it’s best to have male or female teachers help our students learn math. I wonder if this issue ever comes up in countries where students are excelling in math and science. Heck, with 85% of teachers being female, I wonder if we should start worrying about the impact of our teaching force on gender identity.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Gluestick 6:38 pm 01/26/2010

    Personally, it’s not the gender issue that I find unsettling. It’s the fact that, apparently, college graduates can’t comfortably teach 5th grade mathematics…

    Link to this
  13. 13. Tan Boon Tee 9:10 pm 01/26/2010

    As a life time math teacher and physics lecturer, I strongly believe there is certainly an element of truth in what is being said.

    Girls, discouraged at an early age, would most likely have misconceptions about math, and thus shun it when older.

    Why not carry out more extensive international long term control group experiments to further illuminate the situation?

    Link to this
  14. 14. KDdidit 11:24 pm 01/26/2010

    Having spent 24 of my 36 years in K-8 education in one school I must comment on the math background of my fellow first and second grade teachers. They did not know mathematical theory, and openly admitted that they would NOT teach anything beyond 3rd grade because they felt (knew) they didn’t know the subject matter and they didn’t want to be embarrassed by the students knowing more than they did. I was the only mathematically trained primary teacher in that school and it was painful to listen to or undo what had been transmitted to the students.

    When three of my colleagues did not know that adding consecutive odd numbers gave them a pattern known as square numbers, and during a math enrichment training for the teachers ALL three responded with "IS that WHY they call them square numbers?" Enough said for what wasn’t being taught to inspire students to think mathematically.

    Link to this
  15. 15. scientella 12:20 am 01/27/2010

    I am sure that girls and boys are equal in math but I am equally sure that boys will ALWAYS BE MORE INTERESTED IN MATH ,just as they are interested in machinery, impersonal action, fighting, competition, and girls more interested in personal interaction, nuance, and gossip.

    Its just where their interests fall not whether they can do it if interested. Now girls are being channeled into Math they are doing very nicely thank-you but those primary school teachers are twisting the minds of the little boys who want to run and jump and fight, and as a result their parents think the boys have ADHD and dope them up.

    Its just one form of mad sexism replaced by another. Give the boys a chance and if they want to specialize in computer science dont give their spot to a girl under affirmative action.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Bonniwell 2:52 pm 01/27/2010

    I work with elementary school children. I notice a big difference in girls and boys approach math. Boys treat it like a race in which the first one to find the correct answer is the winner. Even if it’s just a lucky random guess, the first person to blurt out the right answer wins. I call it the "Jeopardy Effect," after the game show, in which a rapid response is the only thing that matters, and understanding is secondary.

    Girls, if given the opportunity, tend to collabotate and explore all possible outcomes. They eventually get to the answer, but along the way they gain a much deeper understanding of the objective that contributes to better learning in the long run.

    In essence, boys and girls are operating under very different rules as they learn math. A lot of girls begin to shut down in the later elementary years as they are not as aggressive about "winning" the contest, and begin to feel like losers because of the way math is taught in so many districts.

    There should be more emphasis on collaborative exploration in all classrooms for all children.

    Link to this
  17. 17. panevills 7:41 pm 01/27/2010

    Society very strongly promotes gender differences even before birth. Look at choices of baby boy and baby girl clothing. Girls are always sweet in pink, yellow, and purple with cutesy sayings. Boy clothing takes on darker colors with sports and vehicle emphasis. And, according to what we see in schools and previous comments overcoming gender bias and environmental influence is nearly impossible. Hooray for women who see beyond stereotypes and follow their interests and abilities to select a career in mathematics, science, or engineering.

    Link to this
  18. 18. sparcboy 9:54 pm 01/27/2010

    I suggest everyone read this SciAm article and then re-think this article:

    Sex Differences in the Brain
    Scientific American Sept 1992
    Doreen Kimura

    http://www.dhushara.com/book/socio/kimura/kimura.htm

    Keeping in mind of course Badari’s comment: This article is not necessarily about math skills, but about gender-biased feelings towards math.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Ghandhi 7:01 pm 01/28/2010

    Start at the beginning… parents/caregivers have the most important periods of developing young scollars and well adjusted individuals… namely the 4.9 years of early life (.9 pregnancy). Young minds need to be stimulated.

    Perhaps it’s the way we send educated individuals into society who are ill equiped to deal with life choices or how to interact with each other? Educators and society in general feel the status quo is good enough… but a greater society would come from a well adjusted, nowledgable and able one.

    A new corriculum would be all it takes… which would modify it somewhat. If puberty is the time we start adulthood… then this is the time to introduce them to understanding what is waiting for them in the real world… high school teachers could be retrained to add to existing corriculums that incorporate real world situations… ie: Math could also include financial real life situations (Economic woes seen today reflect poorly informed individuals); Performing arts, parenting and a psychology class mixed could provide a means to learn about themselves, understand why others are the way they are, conflict/power struggle management and mostly early parenting strategies to maximize the growth of their offspring as individuals… this in turn will give themselves strategies for their own futures; etc. More hands on schooling, field trips, guest topic speekers, creative projects and individualized education (understand first then move on?) could help all students prepare for those tasks that lie ahead… charasmatic teachers who inspire!

    Back to reality… let’s bit@% and complain and not solve anything… education at its best.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Ghandhi 7:03 pm 01/28/2010

    Start at the beginning… parents/caregivers have the most important periods of developing young scollars and well adjusted individuals… namely the 4.9 years of early life (.9 pregnancy). Young minds need to be stimulated.

    Perhaps it’s the way we send educated individuals into society who are ill equiped to deal with life choices or how to interact with each other? Educators and society in general feel the status quo is good enough… but a greater society would come from a well adjusted, nowledgable and able one.

    A new corriculum would be all it takes… which would modify it somewhat. If puberty is the time we start adulthood… then this is the time to introduce them to understanding what is waiting for them in the real world… high school teachers could be retrained to add to existing corriculums that incorporate real world situations… ie: Math could also include financial real life situations (Economic woes seen today reflect poorly informed individuals); Performing arts, parenting and a psychology class mixed could provide a means to learn about themselves, understand why others are the way they are, conflict/power struggle management and mostly early parenting strategies to maximize the growth of their offspring as individuals… this in turn will give themselves strategies for their own futures; etc. More hands on schooling, field trips, guest topic speekers, creative projects and individualized education (understand first then move on?) could help all students prepare for those tasks that lie ahead… charasmatic teachers who inspire!

    Back to reality… let’s bit@% and complain and not solve anything… education at its best.

    Link to this
  21. 21. kenstech 3:30 am 01/31/2010

    This article is total bunk. Women and men are different. The only people who believe otherwise are indoctrinated feminist and marxist who wrongly believe that all human nature is infinitely malleable.

    Men perform better at math, notwithstanding individual outliers.

    With all the "you go girl!" self esteem blather, the deliberate and constant attacks on boys (because they are "privileged") and government enforced agendas like affirmative action, if there was a true sexual equality in this regard it would be apparent by now.

    In my personal experience, girls are more diligent at schoolwork than boys. This means that girls will gladly do homework all night long if it means a pat on the head from their favorite teacher.

    Boys would rather play video games and wrestle, and they tend to care less if their teacher likes them or not. That is the main difference in education that I see.

    Ken
    http://www.kenStech.com

    Link to this
  22. 22. kenstech 3:36 am 01/31/2010

    The problem with your line of thinking is that you talk about "math as a career."

    Who does that? Women typically, and that’s the problem.

    Men, for good (and sometimes for ill) are more likely to define themselves in terms of their work. In science and math this is especially true because there are many better ways for a smart person to make money than trudge about in the salt mines of science.

    Being good at math and science isn’t about having a career, it’s about having a cause, and that cause is the esoteric disciplines of math and science.

    People, whether male or female, who go into math because they are trying to get a job will never produce remarkable work. They might become competent reciters of the orthodoxy, but nothing more.

    Ken
    http://www.kenStech.com

    Link to this
  23. 23. thatsallyNCGS 1:25 pm 02/1/2010

    In my experience, confidence has a huge impact on success — in mathematics, and just about every other endeavor too. See what a mathematics teacher at a single gender school for girls has to say about it: http://tinyurl.com/y8zr2ru

    Link to this
  24. 24. tyciol 10:50 pm 02/10/2010

    There isn’t anything here about glycogen secretion… Power Puff!

    Link to this
  25. 25. kenstech 11:01 pm 02/10/2010

    So Dr. Ernest, what you are saying is that only non-white males can comprehend the alleged discrimination that keeps non-white males out of the sciences?

    How do you know this? In your own post, you make the point that 85% of teachers are female. Are all those female teachers part of this grand conspiracy?

    Frankly, your argument is so ridiculous, that if you really did managed to get a doctorate from some school, I would hope that you tell us where so we can avoid it.

    Ken
    http://www.kenstech.com

    Link to this
  26. 26. susie00 6:30 pm 02/23/2010

    girls do so much better than boys because in my grade all of the boys are obsessed about things like video games not about getting good grades.

    Link to this

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