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Social Contexts of Education: Gender, Mathematics, and Equity Research

March 26, 2010

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).

Check out the other posts in this series at Equality 101: Teaching Social Justice to Privileged Kids;Teaching Brown V. Board of Education; Funds of Knowledge; Race in the Classroom

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?

  1. March 26, 2010 9:18 am

    It is widely believed that boys do not like to read, have no interest in reading, do not excel at reading. Instead of writing them off as unfit for subjects like English or History, publishing companies are experimenting with new ways of getting boys interested in these subjects in the form or Shakespeare or Louis Riel comic books instead of traditional school textbooks. Pedagogy is expanding to include boys’ learning styles/interests. The same should be true for girls.

    • March 26, 2010 9:34 am

      I disagree with you. In fact, your comment of “It is widely believe that boys do not like to read” is completely unfounded and you’re reinforcing stereotypes.

      I would really like to see research for all of your claims—I am getting a master of science in education, and I have read extensively about pedagogy traditionally geared towards the learning styles of white males.

      • Jessica Mack permalink*
        March 28, 2010 9:48 am

        Emily, did you see Kristof’s column today? Interesting, and he cites several new research that does support this idea — in every state, at every school level, boys lag behind girls in terms of reading level and ability. I don’t think this is necessarily reinforcing stereotypes, to say that boys need a different learning environment to be able to excel at verbal subjects because it seems the article you’re highlighting here is saying that girls perhaps need different learning environments to be able to excel (as they do have the natural ability to) at maths…no? Thanks for this post, very thought-provoking.

  2. Katie Filous permalink
    March 26, 2010 9:57 am

    Check out this report by the AAUW and the webcast they did on Why So Few? yesterday. Super interesting and relates to women and girls in science, technology, and higher ed in general.

  3. Robert M. permalink
    March 28, 2010 1:37 am

    Why are you infuriated by the idea that spatial perception is different between men and women? Clearly, the experiment was conducted well, without any apparent flaws. Why would a difference in spatial perception be a problem? You are not going to tell me that men and women are identical in every respect, and that all apparent differences are socially constructed, are you? To be clear, there still is sexism today, but not all research that points to differences between the genders is sexist or socially constructed.
    As far as maths not being women’s forté, I am convinced it’s not true. Rather, there is some serious research saying that how we perceive numbers, through language, has an impact on our ability to think mathematically.

    • March 28, 2010 6:14 pm

      “Clearly, the experiment was conducted well, without any apparent flaws.”

      What study are you referring to?

      I bring up Jo Boaler’s research because she does extensive research on previous studies that premise on the spatial difference between men and women, and based on that premise (which has never been founded, as she points out) then they conduct their studies. That’s what infuriates me.

  4. March 28, 2010 6:17 pm


    No, I haven’t read the Kristof article however one of the many reasons why boys lag behind in reading is the same reason why girls lag behind in math/science (they are “told” that it is not a strong subject for them).

    Jo Boaler’s point was to say that research affects education and should be reconfigured in how it’s done . . . some research, which she points out in her article, are flawed in that they base their research off of the myth of “girls are bad at math/science; boys are bad at English/reading.”

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