Education

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Research Shows Girls May Learn Math Anxiety—From Female Teachers

January 27, 2010 12:12 PM
by Colleen Brondou
A study found that elementary girls scored lower on math tests after spending a school year with female teachers that are anxious about math.

Do Girls Learn to Be Afraid of Math?

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Call it a myth or a stereotype, but girls have long believed that they are not good at math. A new study proposes “a surprising source” for the belief, Karen Kaplan writes for the Los Angeles Times. It seems that “their female elementary school teachers” may be to blame.

Researchers tested first- and second-graders at the beginning of the school year and found no significant differences in math scores between girls and boys. But after spending a year with female teachers that had math anxiety, girls “scored significantly lower on math tests than their peers.”

“Teachers who are anxious about their own math abilities are translating some of that to their kids,” University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, who led the study, told Kaplan.

The researchers aren’t sure how math anxiety is communicated from teachers to students. They wonder whether teachers with math anxiety call on girls less often, praise boys more often or somehow suggest that girls don’t need to be good at math. Beilock says teachers may display their math anxiety by hesitating to answer questions or “speaking in a different tone of voice,” Kaplan writes. 

If girls see women have a hard time with math, it “contributes to the stereotype that math is for males,” Janet Shibley Hyde, a University of Wisconsin psychology professor, told Kaplan. “It’s kind of like the Barbie who said, ‘Math is hard.’”

Background: Math ability equal between girls and boys

Several studies have shown that girls and boys have the same level of math ability. In 2008, the journal Science published a report by Hyde and her colleagues that looked at the math test scores of more than 7 million American students in grades 2 through 11. The researchers found no difference between girls and boys at any grade level.

Similarly, a study published in Psychological Bulletin this month, by some of the same researchers, looked at the “mathematics achievement” of almost 500,000 students, ages 14 to 16, in 69 countries. The report “found that boys and girls scored essentially the same,” according to Kaplan, and that girls living in countries “where many women pursued careers in math and science” did better.

Opinion & Analysis: Is it more than just math anxiety?

Marcia C. Linn, a professor of development and cognition at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, questioned whether teachers are the only ones that should be singled out. “It’s not just their teachers,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s the textbook, and it’s a new conception of mathematics.”

In 2008, ScienceDaily commented on a report published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The article charged that a “culture of neglect and, at some age levels, outright social ostracism, is derailing a generation of students, especially girls, deemed the very best in mathematics.”

According to Janet Mertz, a senior author of the report, girls do as well as or even better than boys in math in elementary school. In middle schools, girls begin to lose interest in math, “mostly due to peer pressure and societal expectations.” In middle and high school, “social stigma” and a lack of “challenging educational opportunities” also makes girls turn away from math. 

Reference: Math Web guide

FindingDulcinea’s Elementary Math Web Guide has online resources for students, teachers and parents, including math games, lesson plans, worksheets and more.
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