Early Childhood

4 Ways to Help Students (especially Girls) Develop a Positive Math Identity

It’s important that every student believe they are good at math, and perhaps even more important for girls who still, all too frequently, hear the message that boys are naturally better at math than girls. And research shows that this just isn’t true. Nationally, girls score within three points of, boys on 4th-grade standardized math tests and by 8th grade, test scores are the same for both boys and girls.1 It’s not until girls get closer to college that they start to take fewer advanced math courses, a trend that increases through college and graduate work.

Helping girls to foster a positive math identity is particularly important to me since mathematics has been such an important and rewarding part of my life and work. So how do we make sure that the girls, as well as the boys, in our elementary classrooms know that they too can excel at math?

1. Have High Expectations for All of Your Students

It’s important that you believe that the girls in your class are just as good at math as the boys. Since the belief that boys are inherently better at math than girls is so prevalent in our culture, be aware of any actions or statements you make that might unintentionally reinforce this bias. Are boys often the first to raise their hands so you call on them more often? And the girls in your class may be less confident in their ability to excel at math than the boys. Research shows that even when girls are getting better grades, boys are more confident than girls in their math ability.2 Your belief that girls are equally capable of being proficient at math can go a long way to helping them understand that they too can be good mathematicians. Your belief Is evident every time you praise good thinking and perseverance.

2. Provide Girls with Positive Role Models

Check your own math anxiety at the door. You are one of the most important role models for the girls in your class, and your attitude toward math makes a difference. Even well-meaning statements, such as “Don’t worry, I wasn’t good at math either” can reinforce a girl’s belief that somehow girls just aren’t good at math. Showcasing that you are proficient at math, even if you may not always feel that way, will help build girl’s confidence in their own ability to do math.

Get parents on board. Point out how both moms and dads use math daily—paying bills, cooking, driving, crafting, exercising, gardening, shopping, etc.—regardless of who performs the task. And of course, almost everybody (94% according to a recent study3) uses math every day in their jobs. Reminding parents how both moms and dads regularly use math can help them better support their daughters, as well as their sons, as mathematicians.

Feature stories about and photos of female mathematicians. You can’t be what you can’t see. Research shows that both girls and boys picture men when asked to visualize a mathematician.4 So it’s important that girls know that many famous women—Katherine Johnson, who worked at NASA, Elizabeth Friedman, who cracked codes, Ada Byron Lovelace, who wrote the first computer program—have helped pioneer significant advancements in mathematics and that they too can change the world through math.  Every child In your classroom should learn about mathematicians who look like them.

3. Make Smart Instructional Choices

Help students shift to a growth mindset. Presenting incorrect responses as learning opportunities is beneficial to all of the students in your class, but may be particularly important to help counter the belief that boys are naturally better at math than girls. Students aren’t born good or bad in math, rather students become good in math through effort and productive struggle.

Go beyond multiple choice and worksheets. Research indicates that boys outperform girls in general on multiple choice questions.5 Incorporating opportunities for verbal and written expression through open-ended questions and word problems allows girls to showcase their work and rewards them for their process, as well as their answer. In fact, this approach benefits all of your students as it promotes critical thinking.

Use compelling real-world examples. Showing how math relates to your students’ daily lives makes math relevant. It’s particularly important to highlight examples that appeal to both boys and girls. Boys may be more interested in how to use math to build a go-kart; girls may be more interested in using math to design a playground.

Emphasize team work. All of your students can learn through collaboration, but working in teams is particularly empowering for girls as they often prefer to work in groups and excel at doing so. According to a recent study, girls outperform boys in collaborative problem solving.6 And team work is often a critical component of careers that involve math.

4. Emphasize the Creativity of Math

Math is all about curiosity, wonder, and yes, creativity. Make sure your math instruction includes games, engaging problems, rich math tasks, manipulatives, real objects, movement, meaningful conversation, hands-on activities, and fun questions. Emphasizing the creativity in math will improve learning for all of your students.

By middle school, more than 90% of girls rate themselves as very creative and 72% say they want to pursue a career that has a positive impact on the world, but only 37% think that STEM jobs are creative or make the world better. So, it’s important that your students, particularly the girls in your class, understand that jobs involving math can be very creative and rewarding, jobs such as Ecologist, LEGO Designer, Fragrance Chemist, Storm Tracker, Underwater Archeologist, Game Developer, Volcanologist, Cosmetic Scientist, Urban Grower, and dare I say, Math Content Developer.

1 National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP Report Card: Mathematics. 

2 Mathematics Confidence, Interest, and Performance: Examining Gender Patterns and Reciprocal Relations. Colleen M. Ganley and Sarah Theule Lubienski. Learning and Individual Differences. Volume 47, April 2016.

3 What Do People Do at Work? Michael J. Handel. Journal of Labor Market Research, Volume 49. October 2016.

4 Children’s Gender Stereotypes About Math: The Role of Stereotype Stratification. Jennifer Steele. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. July 2006.  

5 Children’s Gender Stereotypes About Math: The Role of Stereotype Stratification. Jennifer Steele. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. July 2006. 

6 Collaborative Problem Solving. Jeffrey Mo. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. November 2017.  

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Sara Delano Moore, Ph.D.

ORIGO Education

ORIGO Education has partnered with educators for over 25 years to make math learning meaningful, enjoyable and accessible to all.

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