Math anxiety is elementary… if you’re a girl

January 30, 2010

A recent AP science story by Randolph E. Schmid suggests that Girls may learn Math Anxiety from Female Teachers.  A cited study showed that at the beginning of a school year math ability was not related to teacher math anxiety, but by the year’s end the more anxious the kids’ teachers were about their own math skills, the more often their female students (and not the boys) endorsed the statement that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.”

Given that 90 percent of elementary school teachers are women, and separate research suggests that elementary education majors in college have the highest levels of math anxiety of any major in college.

The researchers conclude, “If the next generation of teachers — especially elementary school teachers—is going to teach their students effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators.”

In the meantime, however, if we happen to be parenting an elementary age girl it would seem to make sense to take a glance at our own levels of math anxiety.  While I have boys, certainly the stereotype has not been smashed in our house where I’ve been the point person on math and science homework and my wife on languages, literature and history.

Perhaps we owe it to our girls to conquer our own math phobias (not to mention math prejudices); if you like Oscar Wilde’s notion that if you haven’t seen the beauty in something you really haven’t seen a thing, you might not want to toss math into the nerdy and irrelevant bin.

We also might like to expose our girls to positive female math role models (if that not be ourselves), both valuing math as a subject and holding the high expectation that our girls are just as good at math as our boys.  If for whatever reason the bias against girls being good at math lives on in your own mind, take a mindful moment to confront the facts—this is learned behavior, not an innate biological difference.

So, let’s dedicate today to doing what we need to do to empower our girls to own their natural and equal rights to math prowess—let’s count on each other to solve this longstanding and unequal equation… in the service of all our collective children, particularly our girls.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth K January 30, 2010 at 8:14 am

You’re right on. As a math teacher and tutor, I have taught many girls and young women (and some boys and men) with math anxiety. Their anxiety often causes them to rush into calculations without taking the time up front to analyze the problem correctly.
Some of the students I tutored in the past were elementary education students. I totally agree that elementary ed programs should better address attitudes toward math.
As a math educator, in addition to teaching students how to solve problems, I try to show that it’s okay to not know immediately how to do a problem and even to make a mistake.


Mwa January 30, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Interesting. At least most math teachers over here seem to be women. (I am one, inspired by my father’s math skills.) But you’re right there’s still the stereotype.


April February 1, 2010 at 10:33 am

I’m a word person. I’m not anxious about math because I’m a girl, I just don’t get it! Which, let me tell you, is so wonderfully helpful to my 4th grade daughter who needs help with her geometry homework. She’s learned much about Google lately.


Erin February 1, 2010 at 10:34 am

This is SO timely (no pun intended) because my second daughter, a 3rd grader, is struggling to learn her times tables. She has always been an excellent student and I’ve never even had to take an interest in her homework, until she came home last week in tears because she’d only completed 23 out of 40 questions on a timed multiplication test. Math has always come easily to me, I was a little shaken. (Luckily, I’d had a badass female calculus teacher in high school who crushed all the “boys are better at math” stereotypes… even though I was the only girl in a class of six). It is a lesson in consciously making the effort to slow down and offer help to her now. Thanks for this post, and also to Beth K for her comment about slowing down to solve problems. That will surely help.


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