Do stereotypes help or hinder in math education?

By Murray Bourne, 03 Oct 2006

In the 1980s in Australia there was great angst about the relatively poor performance of girls in secondary mathematics and science, compared with boys. The authorities introduced several programmes to address this problem, including segregating boys and girls (allowing the girls to get on with it while the hormonally charged boys had to pant about something else), providing strong role models (yes, there are lots of women scientists and engineers) and generally providing strong encouragement to the girls.

The effect? Now, girls outperform boys in maths and science and are better represented at university level than before.

I couldn’t help reflecting on this when reading "To teach math, drop stereotypes" [no longer available] by Nakonia Hayes, a "retired elementary principal and former secondary math teacher". Hayes bashes the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for its statement that

“ . . .Women and minority groups do not learn the same way as Anglo males . . . males learn better deductively in a competitive environment . . .”

She continues:

A mathematics curriculum should not be designed to address caricatures of learners. It should teach math â€” its organization and discipline. Egalitarianism, as supported by soft bigotry, should not be the primary goal of mathematics education.

Wow - "soft bigotry" - nice term. I don’t agree with all of her arguments, like this one:

It wasn’t their “learning styles” that had to be addressed, but their learning “gaps.”

Can’t we aim to address both?

However, a crucial thing she points out when citing a post-war study on deprived holocaust survivor children,

They hadn’t been taught “how to learn.”

That folks, is a key issue.

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