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Getting Girls Into Math

Young girls and young boys behave differently and mass culture supports those differences, sometimes in negative ways.

My two decades as a math teacher, and many more years as a parent of both a boy and a girl have proven this for me definitively. And for parents who hope to keep the world of STEM open and interesting to their young daughters, that can pose the occasional challenge, writes Dave Auerbach in Slate.

In my experience, young girls are usually the more social of the sexes, the more romantic, and very cognizant of what others think of them. That last characteristic makes it much more difficult to teach girls math if they find the subject challenging. Generally, girls will spend more time looking over their shoulder to ensure that no one notices their weakness, than actually struggling with the problem at hand or listening to the explanation.

Most boys don’t have a problem interrupting their teacher to ask all of their questions, and they usually tend to understand material a bit faster because of this. Conversely, when girls start to feel that they’re falling behind, they brush off the entire subject as being “not important,” and society tends to support them in that sentiment.

So, how do we, as parents, affect change? RSM was started by two women; many of the teachers, and those in the curriculum department, are women. They all share a love of math, and benefit from a certain confidence because of it. I see it in the classroom all the time. When a girl begins to gain momentum and skill in math, her entire demeanor changes. She gains confidence, becoming more outgoing and outspoken. Her stature changes, she sits straight up in her chair, rather than slouching in an attempt to become invisible. As boys improve they gain confidence too, of course. But the differential for girls is much greater.

Raising girls who are strong in math means not only raising a strong woman who has any profession open to her, but also a future mother who can help her children develop their math skills. So the stakes are high. And it’s up to the family to meet them.

The Former Soviet Union did two things right: it provided a solid math education to all children, regardless of gender, and it (indirectly) taught its families how to influence their children against the grain of society. If we did it there, then mothers can do the same for their daughters here. Children grow up quickly, and we don’t have the time to wait for mass culture to catch up to our values.

Written by Inessa Rifkin, Founder of the Russian School of Mathematics 

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