"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Love for Math

My seven-year old daughter loves mathematics. It shows. After she uses the shower, I often notice scribbles on the glass door of geometric figures as well as numerical equations. She has a high math self-concept. After all, her father has a doctorate in chemistry, her mother has a doctorate in pharmacy, and her grandmother has a degree in physics. There is really no reason to have anxiety in math in our home. In school, my daughter is also fortunate to have a supportive teacher. Recently, her teacher sent me an email saying, "Second graders have been working on making 4 digit numbers in different ways. Your daughter did a great job of making this number by drawing base ten blocks! I am so proud of how hard she is working in math." Her email came with the following photo:

My daughter looks happy as she shows her teacher how she represents 4217 with cubes as 1000's,
squares as 100's, lines as 10's, and dots as 1's (photo taken by her teacher)
The elementary years are indeed crucial for a girl's attitude towards mathematics. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the Unites States of America (PNAS-USA) highlights how math-anxious first- and second-grade female teachers affect a female student's math achievement and self-concept. In this paper, the authors write:
By the school year’s end, female teachers’ math anxiety negatively relates to girls’ math achievement, and this relation is mediated by girls’ gender ability beliefs. 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. If so, it follows that girls who confirm traditional gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year (i.e., draw boys as good at math and girls as good at reading) should have lower math achievement than girls who do not and than boys more generally. This is exactly what we found.
Unfortunately, such beliefs apparently become solid and the gender gap in math then continues in the later years of basic education such that reforms in high school hardly affect math self-concept. In a study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, this problem is illustrated in the case of thousands of students in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany. Starting in 2002, all students in this state are required to take advanced math courses. Prior to this reform, males outnumber females in the enrollment in these advanced math courses. Requiring everyone to take advanced math courses therefore addresses the gender imbalance. What the researchers find regarding the effects of this reform are summarized below:

Above copied from
Hübner, N., Wille, E., Cambria, J., Oschatz, K., Nagengast, B., & Trautwein, U. (2017, March 27). Maximizing Gender Equality by Minimizing Course Choice Options? Effects of Obligatory Coursework in Math on Gender Differences in STEM. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000183

There is clearly an improvement in math performance for female students after requiring everyone to take advanced level math courses. However, there is not much change in self-concept as well as interests. The above helps emphasize that addressing gender differences in math needs to be addressed early. As the authors of the PNAS study note:
Interestingly, math anxiety can be reduced through math training and education. This suggests that the minimal mathematics requirements for obtaining an elementary education degree at most US universities need to be rethought. If the next generation of teachers—especially elementary school teachers—is going to teach their students effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators.

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