Monday, 5 August 2013

Elementary-School Girls and Math Anxiety

Just read a really interesting article in the Smithsonian on how math-anxious, female, early elementary school teachers pass on their math-anxiety to their female students. It's a really short article, so why don't you click through and read it?

I'm particularly interested in this as I begin researching how to homeschool my children. Up until about a year ago, I would've fit the definition of math anxiety given in the article: "When someone has math anxiety, they can master mathematical concepts but tend to avoid the subject and perform more poorly than their abilities allow." I'm a fairly intelligent human being, passed my SATs no problem, and generally was able to find most subjects interesting and engaging, from different types of genetic mutations to how to write a sestina to basic CSS, and everything in between. Why did math feel like such a brick wall to me?

There were probably a lot of things at play, but two points stand out to me as notable:
1) My own math teacher (my mother) was and is pretty math-anxious, while my dad is pretty good at math. Of my siblings and I, only my brother came out of secondary school feeling mathematically adept. I'm not trying to blame my parents at all, but I do think it likely that some of the subconscious stereotyping as described in the Smithsonian article was playing out in our family. Obviously, as with the teachers in the article, there is no intention of raising girls who performed worse in math than the boys, but I think it's reasonable to suppose some of those preconceptions about girls being worse at math than boys were communicated through my own parents' educations (after all, when they were being educated in the seventies and eighties, it was by teachers who would've been educated even earlier-- at a time when girls and STEM studies were pretty well considered totally incompatible.)
2) The other skill-area in my life where I felt that notion of a brick wall and not being able to improve myself was sports. I always thought I was just bad at sports, but that it didn't matter because I was a girl and didn't need to play sports-- that was for boys. As an adult, I am much more able to see the joy and use of using your body well, and once I'm not pregnant/recovering from a pregnancy anymore, I do hope to engage in sports much more. So I definitely think I was self-stereotyping, discouraged in what could've been of great interest and benefit to me by pre-conceived notions of what I could and should be good at.

So coming back to the research I'm doing for homeschooling my own children: even before reading the Smithsonian article, I had come to the conclusion that believing your brain isn't capable of doing a certain skill is a fabulous way to cripple your brain in doing it, so I knew I wanted to pass on to my children the joy of math, logic, and analytical thinking as surely as my own mother did such a wonderful job passing on the love of reading, poetry, and music. I am more sure than ever now that I want to be careful not to let my (potential future) daughters think that math is for boys, and that one way I need to do that is by entering joyfully into math myself.

What about you? How do you think your math teachers affected your ability to learn math? Have you thought about how you will teach math to your kids (real or potential future)?

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