Friday, November 14, 2014

How We're Keeping Girls Out of STEM: Teaching and Messaging

In this week’s WAPPP seminar “Paying the Price for Sugar and Spice: How Girls and Women are Kept out of Mathematics and Science,” Stanford Professor of Mathematics Education Jo Boaler argued that the STEM disciplines are impoverished by the current lack of women’s participation.

Professor Boaler started the seminar by presenting the problem in basic terms: STEM achievement is equal by gender across K-12, but the participation in these areas is not, leading to a significant gender gap. A recent meta-analysis of 259 studies involving three million people revealed that academic achievement in STEM was almost equally split between genders, with girls ahead in 49% of studies and boys ahead in 51% of them.

There is a significant disparity in participation, however. The decline in women earning college degrees in mathematics and computer science in the last two decades has led to severe differences when it comes to PhD attainment, which in turn affect the pipeline for professors and other specialists in these fields.

While some believe that these differences are due to preferences and the gap is therefore not as big of an issue, Boaler argued that girls' choices are restricted by the environments that parents and educators create. She argued that there are two neglected areas that contribute to this gap: 1) teaching and 2) mindset and messaging.

The problem is the current use of traditional instead of inquiry teaching, Boaler argued, saying that mathematics is currently taught dryly. Studies show that when math is taught as a multi-dimensional subject involving inquiry, every student benefits, and the gender gap also disappears. Essentially, girls underachieve and opt out in traditional math classrooms, while boys perform the same in both. 

Beliefs and messages matter as well. This is what Boaler refers to as the elephant in the classroom: the idea that some kids aren’t going to be good at math, no matter what. New knowledge about brain plasticity shows that this isn’t true. If we take the time to learn an issue deeply, our brain makes new connections that can strengthen over time and carry us into adulthood. Boaler explained that this means that no one is born with a “math brain.”

This new neuroscience demonstrates that speed is not necessary or sufficient for learning math and that when we're anxious, our working memory is blocked. In short, stress makes doing math difficult. What’s more, time tests can be the early onset of math anxiety for many students, and this anxiety affects girls worse than boys. Boaler wrote about both these issues for Atlantic last year in a piece entitled “The Stereotypes That Distort How Americans Teach and Learn Math.”

Professor Boaler does not just study this issue, however. She’s also a practitioner. Last year, she created Youcubed, an online portal that provides seminars on how to better learn and teach math. 40,000 people participated in the first course, and by the end of it, 95% of participants said they would change teaching or parenting. This could have huge effects for girls in STEM classrooms.

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