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Sugar and spice and… math under-achievement?: Why classrooms, not girls, need fixing

March 28, 2012
The Clayman Institute for Gender Research
Prof. Jo Boaler
Prof. Jo Boaler
Collaborative learning environments can eliminate the gender gap in math, says Boaler.

by Erin Cech

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 fix girls?

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