ERIC Identifier: ED344977
Publication Date: 1992-02-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy - Hanson, Katherine
Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.| Education Development
Center Inc. Newton MA. Center for Equity and Cultural Diversity.
Equal Mathematics Education for Female Students. ERIC/CUE
Digest, Number 78.
Research over the last decade has shown that males and females have different
classroom experiences because they approach learning differently and because
teachers tend to treat them differently. Achievement expectations for females in
some subjects are usually lower, as they are for members of certain racial and
ethnic groups and for poor students.
Traditionally, females have found advanced mathematics achievement elusive.
Girls' mathematic achievement in the elementary grades is equal to boys' but
decreases in the middle school (Callahan & Clements, 1984; Dossey et al.,
1988). An analysis of math achievement of twelfth grade girls in 15 countries
revealed that in all but three countries girls were less successful than boys
(Hanna, Kundiger, & Larouche, 1990). That gender differences seem not to
surface until age ten (Callahan & Clements, 1984; Dossey, Mulis, Lindquist,
& Chambers, 1988) suggests that the decline of female achievement is the
result of a strong pattern of socialization to mathematics success or failure
rather than to gender differences in innate ability.
As girls progress through school, they are less likely to continue their math
education, either taking more rudimentary courses or dropping the subject
altogether (Pallas & Alexander, 1983).
This digest reviews common teaching practices and methods of communication in
the classroom--known as discourse--to indicate the treatment of female students
that inhibits their ability to successfully learn math. It also identifies some
negative attitudes about female mathematics achievement held by teachers and
parents that may deter girls from continuing their math education.
SOCIALIZATION ISSUES IN FEMALE MATHEMATICS ACHIEVEMENT
females lose interest in math is the result of a number of factors, among them a
decline in self-esteem and capitulation to the forces of socialization that
encourage girls to focus on their bodies at the expense of a whole-person or
achievement orientation. Historically, the adage, "math is not for girls," and
the belief that girls should not reveal their intelligence lest it compromise
their sexual desirability (and, thus, their social role as wife/mother), have
combined to squelch girls' interest in advanced mathematics. Moreover, girls
often are not given information about career possibilities requiring competence
in advanced mathematics. Neither are they introduced to women role models with
successful math careers, although, in general, role models can be an important
factor in elevating a young person's aspirations.
At home, parents may unconsciously fail to provide support for their
daughters' interest in math, either by directing their interests elsewhere or by
giving all their support for education to their sons. The attitudes of teachers
and male students usually reinforce parents' message.
GENDER DIFFERENCES IN LEARNING STYLES
Evidence exists that
males and females tend to approach learning from a different perspective,
although the reasons for the differences continue to be debated.
In the classroom, females prefer to use a conversational style that fosters
group consensus and builds ideas on top of each other; the interrelationship of
thoughts and actions is paramount. Males, conversely, learn through argument and
individual activity--behaviors fostered early. Most classroom discourse is
organized to accommodate male learning patterns (Ong, 1981).
In addition, females are not likely to believe that math has utility in their
lives (Fennema & Sherman, 1978); they see math as unconnected to a
relationship model of thinking. Even if they persist in taking math courses,
girls are apt to find that they don't like them, and liking a subject is key to
succeeding at it (Lockhead, Thorpe, Brooks-Gunn, Casserly, & McAloon, 1985).
TRADITIONAL TEACHING METHODS AND CURRICULA
structure, designed to foster independent non-collaborative thinking, is most
supportive of white male, middle-class socialization models, and it continues
through university (Pearson & West, 1991). It encourages sex-role
stereotyped forms of communication--independence, dominance, assumption of
leadership--in which males have been trained to excel. Women, conversely, feel
uncomfortable and excluded in situations requiring such behavior; yet, their
participation--as questioners as well as newly-minted authorities--may be
critical to knowledge acquisition and school success. The importance that women
place on mutual support, building collaborative knowledge, and applying it
practically is devalued in comparison with the importance of individual
expertise to males and their inclination to debate abstract concepts.
Math curricula often exploit the differences between males and females by
drawing on their different early play experiences. Action toys for boys teach
core mathematics concepts (velocity, angles, three-dimensional configurations),
while girls usually experience these concepts for the first time in a classroom.
THE ROLE OF TEACHERS IN LEARNING
In a classroom, teachers
set the standard for discourse. Their reliance on teaching methods that adhere
to traditional norms and beliefs about gender differences, and that benefit only
male students, can create a "chilly climate" for girls (Sandler, 1982; Kramaerae
& Treichler, 1990).
Teachers, believing that participation is an indicator of learning, are
likely to ignore females because they participate less than males. Moreover,
teachers are often unaware that they are concentrating on teaching males because
the process of classroom interaction is unconscious, and they respond
automatically to student demands for attention. Males demand more attention,
complain more that they are not receiving enough, and their teachers and female
peers expect them to get it. Analyses of classroom discussions involving
children between the ages of 9 and 11 in different settings revealed that boys
took three times as many turns speaking (Redpath & Claire, 1989), and a
study of college-age students demonstrated that men dominate discussions even
more as they get older, in some classes speaking as much as 12 times longer than
women (Krupnick, 1985).
Even when females do participate in classroom talk, their approach may
suggest to teachers they have less command over the subject matter than males.
Girls are more likely to ask questions, acknowledge the comments of previous
speakers, and refrain from interrupting exchanges in progress. In other words,
their classroom conduct is consonant with accepted sex-role behavior that
compromises women's assertiveness (Hendrick & Strange, 1989). In comparing
the participation patterns of males and females, teachers are apt to treat
females' discourse contributions with less respect because girls exhibit less
authority. In allowing classroom discourse to parallel sex-role differences in
society, teachers unconsciously pass on negative expectations for girls.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ENCOURAGING MATHEMATICS
Since a goal of "Education 2000: An Education Strategy" is to
promote students' science and mathematics achievement, and since sex equity in
general is a societal goal, it is crucial to remove the barriers that prevent
females from learning advanced mathematics.
A first step is an ATTITUDE CHANGE. If parents believe that their daughters
can succeed in math and master technology, they will provide them with toys that
promote math learning readiness and will encourage them to sustain their
perseverance in math courses. If teachers understand and respect female learning
styles, they will alter classroom discourse to accommodate girls' participation
and provide a message to both males and females that no single learning behavior
is superior to another.
Equally important are concrete CHANGES IN TEACHING METHODS AND CURRICULA.
Cooperative learning that promotes collegiality between male and female students
is one approach. Structuring lessons around the thinking processes needed to
arrive at answers to questions rather than focusing solely on the answer itself
is another. Math problems can reflect girls' experience (although they should
not be limited to stereotypically female concerns, such as cooking and sewing)
and can emphasize practical, real life applications. PROVIDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR GIRLS TO INTERACT AS PEERS, separate from the co-ed classroom, can also strengthen their interest and
participation in math as well as other school subjects.
Finally, GENDER BIAS IN EDUCATION AND CAREER COUNSELING SHOULD BE ELIMINATED.
Only when females are convinced that they can both learn advanced mathematics
and use it for professional success will full integration of math classrooms
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