Cheap Ways To Improve Girls’ Achievement in Mathematics

New readers will see that out of my first 3 posts, 2 of them have been harrangues about the current state of mathematics education, where people will flail around for anything ANYTHING to improve their child’s improvement. I’m a research kinda guy, which is why these programs drive me crazy: there’s either no research to back up their long-term effectiveness (and two to take him) or the research itself is rather suspect (Even The Times Can’t Get The Math Right.) So let’s look at the opposite side of the coin: what research is both provocative, relevant and useful, and has been conducted by a company that is not going to benefit from the results.

Slate, an online magazine, published a wonderful summary of research called “An Easy Way to Boost Women’s Score’s in Physics,” which would seem to apply to mathematics at well. Researchers at the University of Colorado (who have no way to benefit monetarily from the results, a sure sign that this will be unbiased), asked female undergraduates enrolled in physics classes to undertake a 15 minute writing exercise about things that mattered most to them, first at the beginning of the semester, then just before the mid-term exam. Women who underwent this task averaged a B in class, while those who wrote about what mattered to them least averaged a grade of C. There were no changes for women who averaged an “A”, or for men.

The authors of the study were interested in something called “stereotype threat,” that is, the concept that members of an underperforming group can be influenced by biases against them. This has also been demonstrated on women’s performance on math tests back in, are you ready for it, 1999! So, if we’ve known about this for over a decade, how come the research hasn’t been put into action?

I see three reasons for the failure of putting the results of these studies into action. The first is, the studies seem to fly in the face of common sense. Both of these studies identify psychological reasons for the underperformance of women in the sciences, and if there’s anything people distrust, it is psychological research, no matter how rigorously it is performed. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we associate psychology with someone sitting on a couch in a room complaining about his/her mother. The fact is, psychology is a rigorous science that relies on the same tools as physics, biology and chemistry; the only difference is the research subjects. A wonderful book that demystifies psychology can be picked up for a penny on Amazon: it’s called “How to Think Straight About Psychology” and it truly will.

The second reason I think that these results have not been implemented is that they don’t seem to be related to the actual teaching of mathematics. That is, many teachers, especially in high school and college, are not interested in the actual “craft’ of teaching. There was a saying I remember from my early days in the classroom: in the elementary school, teachers teach students; in the high school, teachers teach subjects. The focus of improving teaching seems to rely on changing the tools and curriculum, without changing the actual environment in the classroom. Joe Boaler wrote a wonderful book on this subject entitled “What’s Math Got To Do With It?” in which she implemented a math curriculum that radically re-designed the classroom environment. Instead of sitting in a seat following instructions by the teacher, students were given difficult problems to solve and were free to create techniques that would develop their mathematical reasoning. The results were compelling: the students not only performed better in mathematics, but also fully intended to continue their studies of “maths” through college.

The final reason that these findings don’t get implemented has to do with economics: they don’t cost anything! If you’ll compare them to other “solutions,” you’ll see that these findings are very cheap to implement. Unfortunately, our society only values those things which have a price on them, so we feel compelled to purchase new textbooks, more computers, “improved” curricula and all sorts of colorful manipulatives, most of which are untested or of dubious value. Nobody stands to profit from asking girls to write about what matters to them; you can’t shrink-wrap and market techniques for reducing stereotype threat, so there’s little interest in “buy in.”

It’s unfortunate that there is so much good research out there on “what works,” and so little of it actually makes it into the classroom. It’s very reminiscent of the old joke about the man who lost his keys and looks under and streetlamp in a different location, even though his keys are a block away. “Oh, I know they’re not here, but the light is so much better!” he informs us. Sure, it looks good every time we adopt a “new and improved’ curriculum, but is that really where the lost keys to better mathematics education can be found?

Have a good piece of research that can be implemented in your classroom? Why not share it with the community; post it below, or email it to me and I’ll write about it!

About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
This entry was posted in Educational Psychology, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply