Learning to be Bad at Math.

Cross-posted from TAPPED.

A University of Chicago study has found that girls may be learning math anxiety from female teachers who have qualms about their own math skills. Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor in psychology, and her colleagues studied students of both sexes in the classes of 17 different teachers, most of whom were women, and found that the female students of the female teachers who thought they were not good at math were more likely to agree by the end of the year that boys were better at it. Those girls also scored worse on math tests.

“It’s actually surprising in a way, and not. People have had a hunch that teachers could impact the students in this way, but didn’t know how it might do so in gender-specific fashion,” Beilock said in a telephone interview.

Part of what drove the study was that elementary education majors in college are more anxious about math than students in any other college major, Beilock said. If anything, this is an argument for better teacher training. It wold be hard to find an “elementary education” major at many high-ranking colleges, but those schools often provide teacher training certification programs that complement, rather than supplant, more area-specific majors like math. Luring math majors into teaching careers with better salaries would be another start, too. But it’s not surprising that young girls would pick up this sentiment from their female teachers. As a kid, I always issued the disclaimer that I was bad at math, in part because its exactly what my mom said before she did anything remotely numbers related.

  • There’s a social science concept called “stereotype threat” that relates strongly to this. Whenever anyone is reminded of a stereotype affecting their performance, they’ll tend to under- or over-perform based on the stereotype.

    The most striking example I can think of is a study done on Asian-American women. All the group were given the same math test. A random half had pre-test questions about Asian identity that referenced Asians being good at math. The other half had pre-test questions about women being bad at math. The “good Asian” half averaged significantly higher score tests than the “bad woman” half.

  • Scipio Africanus

    I can’t see a large number of math majors deciding to be elementary school teachers. Even just teaching elementary school math strictly. I would think your typical math major wouldn’t want to teach anything below 7th grade Algebra. I haven’t read the study, so if that point was addressed fully, forgive me.

    This blurb about the study raises problematic questions for more than just the surface level findings, though. Is the solution more male elementary school teachers? If it’s stated that way, then that rings mad whack, but people *have* been saying that men should be involved in elemntary education more, for years. But not like this.