Late last year, a study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which tried to pin down origins for the gender gap in mathematics education. As I’ve discussed before, the gender gap in math education is shrinking, and has been shown to be less about biology and more about culture – in cultures where gender equality is weaker, the gender gap is stronger. Nevertheless, even in American culture, the gender gap still persists, and this study by Sian Beilock and others has tried to figure out how, if the gender gap is culturally based, it comes about in young students. The original study can be found here, while a discussion of the study that was featured in the news can be found here.
Professor Beilock and her colleagues tried to correlate young students’ math anxiety with the math anxiety of their teachers. In particular, they looked at 1st and 2nd grade students, of whom a vast majority (over 90%) have teachers who are female. The study assessed the math anxiety of the teachers and measured the math achievement of the students at the beginning and end of the year. Here are the results, taken from the introduction to the paper:
There was no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year. By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall.
These findings make intuitive sense, and lend further support for the need to better our mathematics education at all levels, or at the very least require primary educators to study mathematics more seriously. Teaching mathematics with confidence is not something that comes automatically, even for those who may have been good at math in their early years.
It’s interesting that boys weren’t more likely to endorse the view that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading if their teacher had math anxiety. I’d be curious to see what the case is in a classroom led by a male teacher, both with and without math anxiety. Given the dearth of male primary educators, however, this type of data may be harder to acquire. In any event, the lesson here is clear: if you want your daughter to not fear math, it wouldn’t hurt to demand that her teachers not fear it either. Or at the very least, demand that any math fear be exhibited only by male teachers. That may be a cheaper solution.
I’d also be interested in knowing whether this trend can be reversed by a suitably competent teacher. If a group of 2nd grade girls is taught math by a woman who is unqualified, but in 6th grade is taught by a woman who is exceptional, can this help undo the damage that the 2nd grade teacher has done? I would hope so.