Girls inheriting math anxiety from female teachers?

The LA Times reports on a study suggesting that female elementary school teachers who are anxious about math transmit that anxiety to the girls in their classes:

Girls have long embraced the stereotype that they’re not supposed to be good at math. It seems they may be getting the idea from a surprising source — their female elementary school teachers.

First- and second-graders whose teachers were anxious about mathematics were more likely to believe that boys are hard-wired for math and that girls are better at reading, a new study has found. What’s more, the girls who bought into that notion scored significantly lower on math tests than their peers who didn’t.

The gap in test scores was not apparent in the fall when the kids were first tested, but emerged after spending a school year in the classrooms of teachers with math anxiety. That detail convinced researchers that the teachers — all of them women — were the culprits.

It’s no surprise that teachers who are weak in or nervous about a subject do not inspire confidence, or performance, in that subject among their students. What’s different here is the gender connection — female teachers having a pronounced effect upon girl students — and the subject area. It would be interesting to see just how many elementary school teachers view themselves as “anxious” about teaching math, and then to see how that self-description breaks down by gender. Do a lot of female elementary teachers feel anxious about math? Is it more than male elementary school teachers? I don’t know, but that is certainly the stereotype.

At any rate, the opposite seems to be implied by this study too — female teachers who are strong with math and comfortable with teaching it to kids will have an enhanced positive effect on girls’ perceptions of math and their performance with it.  And it seems like a no-brainer that elementary education curricula ought to stress a strong degree of math content mastery among all preservice teachers — of both genders — and demand a high level of fluency with doing and teaching math.Teaching math to little kids is hard, and you have to know a lot of math outside of what you are going to teach if you’re going to do it well. We need to have done with another stereotype: that you major in elementary education because “you just love kids” (you need more than sentimentality to be a good teacher) or because it’s supposedly an easy major (it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be).



Filed under Early education, Education, Teaching

5 responses to “Girls inheriting math anxiety from female teachers?

  1. Gary

    No one is disputing that the sexes are distinct biologically, but sociologists have shown that many behavoirs and roles we associate with sex vary fromculture to culture, and they are therefore culturally determined. Furthermore, statements like, “Boys are better at math,” may be biologically true on a general basis, but it does not follow that every boy is automatically better than every girl at math. Gender also places value on the sex differences, which biology does not, obviously. To continue the math example, it may be true that biology has given the male brain an advantage in mathematical and spatial intelligence, but the value we place on male forms of thinking over female forms of thinking is societal, and caught up with gender. Everyone is encouraging girls to excel in math and science, but very few people seem to be concerned that boys aren’t so interested in foreign languages sciencer or literature. Instead the Media will feed us lies to oppress boys and better girls. If you you cant see that Gender bias’s Cannot exist anymore. WE PREACH EQUALITY… but we dont mean it as a Country we should be pushing for the better for every student no matter the gender in EVERY subject.

  2. Will Farris

    Oh, Gary, great words there! It is notable, as you say, that the intelligensia has for a long time taken up the issue of mathematics as gender thing precisely because it is a crystal clear parameter that distinguishes left-brain from right-brain. And as a general rule girls are more right-brained and boys are more left-brained. Logic vs intuition, it is just that simple. Remember all those experiments trying to get guys to play with dolls and girls to play with bulldozers? It just did not work – duh! And what is also forgotten in this silly debate is that most people, especially girls, just do not like math as a subject because it is so isolated from tangible reality in the classroom. In order to study pure logical process it strips away the real complexities of the world, as it must, in order to establish models or reality. Touchpoints with reality come later for those who survive theory. And another thing, those girls who do become brainiacs do not typically serve well as role models for their peers. “Oh, Susy is the math brain, but she is so weird.” And typically not too terribly good-looking in my experience, and can be very threatening to guys if they are. This social dynamic is more powerful than any government program can overcome. This is why it is much better to have segregated schooling in the earlier grades to get rid of those distractions and let the intellectual stratifications take care of themselves. The talented ones will be freer to rise to the top without stigma.

    Alas, being good in literature does not get one a job nor is it a means to an educational end that will. Jobs are miserably scarce for math and physics majors, but at least one can move on into engineering or computer science with such a background and poof – as if by magic – suddenly attractive to a huge host of hiring managers. In my group we have electrical engineers and an odd physics major. The physics major is as knowledgeable as the EEs but earns half the salary. Go figure. But that is a topic for another day. So I read literature and philosophy on my own time, as engineers and physics majors are typically illiterate and I wish to avoid that image as far as possible, but it still hasn’t led to any promotion :-0

  3. Carolyn

    Interesting thoughts. You know I have always loved math, never felt anything but encouraged during my school years…and really thought about becoming a math teacher because I liked it so much.
    I think what I always loved about math is that your answer was either right or wrong…no opinions mattered in the grading. (probably why I didn’t care so much for English or History…too much room for subjective grading)…anyway..I think alot of girls might feel that way, but I never did…maybe it was because our dad treated his daughters and you, his son, the same way when it came to academics and life in general…I think we always felt (all three of us) that we could pretty much do anything that we wanted to do in life…we just had to work hard. And I know in high school we had great math teachers….so, maybe the attitude of the parents toward academics has alot to do with the whole thing too…
    anyway…I enjoy reading your posts!

  4. Interesting indeed. I’m not a math person myself, but I think any teacher with any kind of anxiety about teaching any subject is going to cause the students to lose sleep over it down the road. I don’t necessarily believe that it’s as gender specific as this article would have you think. I guess I’m just an advocate of calming yourself and accomplishing what you set out to do.

    Great post.

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