Social Contexts of Education: Gender, Mathematics, and Equity Research
This is article is cross-posted at the blog, Equality 101 and is in a series about the social contexts of education specifically addressing issues of gender in the classroom. These are my thoughts, opinions, and research from a class that I took on the very subject (my class has finished, but I’ll continue to write this series).
Gender and math and women and math, it’s all over the news and it’s been a consistent topic on Equality 101. Oy vey. I could tell you about a study I heard where one researcher found that girls do not excel at math because of how their brains are wired (have you heard about the spatial learning argument?). This kind of research infuriates me, because I feel helpless when I hear that girls are not confident at school and/or cannot excel at math/science. But I found an article that might articulate these thoughts that I have in how equity research needs to be more responsible.
While reading up for my class, I came across an author who criticizes equity researchers. The author, Jo Boaler, explains her argument in Paying the price for “sugar and spice”: Shifting the analytic lens in equity research. The author says that equity researchers reinforce the stereotype that girls’ and women’s lack of success in mathematics is an inherent inability while ignoring teaching environments. Boaler does acknowledge girls’ different learning practices in what she calls a quest for understanding:
Further, many more girls than boys at the school developed a preference that I have called a quest for understanding. At Amber Hill, the teachers presented abstract methods that students were required to practice every lesson. This was problematic for many of the girls, not because they were incapable of attaining success in such an environment – they were able to take the methods they had been given and reproduce them in textbook exercises, but many of the girls wanted more. They wanted to locate the rules and methods they were introduced to within a wider sphere of understanding. Thus they wanted to know why the methods worked, where they came from, and how they fitted into the broader mathematical domain.
Traditional pedagogy is unable to teach this quest for understanding, as Boaler explains. Therefore, it is not inherent as to why girls do not excel at math. No, it’s the teaching environment that does not allow them to excel at math. Boaler sharply criticizes many equity researchers who try to find biological reasons as to why girls do poorly in math compared to boys. However, these equity researchers fail to acknowledge the teaching environments. Boaler goes on to say that:
It is important for all researchers to ask such questions of their work, but equity researchers, in particular, bear an enormous responsibility to consider the ways they are interpreting and framing their data, as well as the “mythologies” of inadequacy that may be constructed.
I shared this article with you because Boaler makes a very good point in why equity researchers need to not only change the direction of their work from “inherent abilities,” but also need to keep in mind their sense of responsibility. Their research strongly affects education. And not only does equity research affect girls, but also other underachieving groups.
What are your thoughts on equity research and its search for intrinsic inferiority?