Authors: Jo Boaler

students I had been observing at Amber Hill.

In one of my first research studies at Stanford, I decided tolearn more about the experiences of high-achieving students in American high school classes. I chose six schools and interviewed forty-eight boys and girls about their experiences in AP calculus classes. In four of the schools the teachers used traditional approaches, giving the students formulas to memorize without discussing why or how they worked. In the other two schools the teachers used the same textbooks, but they would always encourage discussions about the methods that students were using. I was not investigating or looking for gender differences, but I was struck again by the reflections of the girls in the traditional classes and their need to inquire deeply, as Kate at the Lewis school described:

We knew how to do it. But we didn’t know why we were doing it and we didn’t know how we got around to doing it. Especially with limits, we knew what the answer was, but we didn’t know why or how we went around doing it. We just plugged into it. And I think that’s what I really struggled with—I can get the answer, I just don’t understand why.

Again, many of the girls told me that they needed to know why and how methods worked, and they talked about their dislike of classes in which they were just asked to memorize formulas, as Kristina and Betsy at the Angering school described:

K: I’m just not interested in, just, you give me a formula, I’m supposed to memorize the answer and apply it, and that’s it.

JB: Does math have to be like that?

B: I’ve just kind of learned it that way. I don’t know if there’s any other way.

K: At the point I am right now, that’s all I know.

Kristina went on to tell me that her need to explore and to understand phenomena was due to being a young woman:

Math is more, like, concrete, it’s so “It’s that and that’s it.” Women are more, they want to explore stuff and that’s life kind of, like, and I think that’s why I like English and science. I’m more interested in, like, phenomena and nature and animals and I’m just not interested in, just, you give me a formula, I’m supposed to memorize the answer and apply it, and that’s it.

It was unfortunate for Kristina that mathematics was not one of her school subjects that allowed her to “explore” or to consider phenomena, when it should have been.

David Sela, from the ministry of education in Israel, and Anat Zohar, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, conducted an extensive investigation of gender differences in the learning of physics. They took my notion of the quest for understanding that I had found to be prevalent among girls in math classes and considered whether it was also prevalent among girls in physics classes. They found, resoundingly, that it was. The researchers drew from a database of approximately four hundred high schools in Israel that offered advanced-placement physics classes. They sampled fifty students from the schools and interviewed twenty-five girls and twenty-five boys. They found that the girls in physics classes were exhibiting the same preferences that I had found in mathematics classes, resisting the requirement to memorize without understanding, saying that it was “driving them nuts.” The girls talked about wanting to know why methods worked and how they were linked. The authors concluded that “although both girls and boys in the advanced-placement physics classes share a quest for understanding, girls strive for it much more urgently than boys, and seem to suffer academically more than boys do in a classroom culture that does not value it.” 2

Neither the female math students I interviewed nor the female physics students interviewed in Israel wanted an easier science or math. They did not need or want softer versions of the subjects. In fact, the versions of mathematics and science they wanted required considerable depth of thought. In both cases the

In one of my first research studies at Stanford, I decided tolearn more about the experiences of high-achieving students in American high school classes. I chose six schools and interviewed forty-eight boys and girls about their experiences in AP calculus classes. In four of the schools the teachers used traditional approaches, giving the students formulas to memorize without discussing why or how they worked. In the other two schools the teachers used the same textbooks, but they would always encourage discussions about the methods that students were using. I was not investigating or looking for gender differences, but I was struck again by the reflections of the girls in the traditional classes and their need to inquire deeply, as Kate at the Lewis school described:

We knew how to do it. But we didn’t know why we were doing it and we didn’t know how we got around to doing it. Especially with limits, we knew what the answer was, but we didn’t know why or how we went around doing it. We just plugged into it. And I think that’s what I really struggled with—I can get the answer, I just don’t understand why.

Again, many of the girls told me that they needed to know why and how methods worked, and they talked about their dislike of classes in which they were just asked to memorize formulas, as Kristina and Betsy at the Angering school described:

K: I’m just not interested in, just, you give me a formula, I’m supposed to memorize the answer and apply it, and that’s it.

JB: Does math have to be like that?

B: I’ve just kind of learned it that way. I don’t know if there’s any other way.

K: At the point I am right now, that’s all I know.

Kristina went on to tell me that her need to explore and to understand phenomena was due to being a young woman:

Math is more, like, concrete, it’s so “It’s that and that’s it.” Women are more, they want to explore stuff and that’s life kind of, like, and I think that’s why I like English and science. I’m more interested in, like, phenomena and nature and animals and I’m just not interested in, just, you give me a formula, I’m supposed to memorize the answer and apply it, and that’s it.

It was unfortunate for Kristina that mathematics was not one of her school subjects that allowed her to “explore” or to consider phenomena, when it should have been.

David Sela, from the ministry of education in Israel, and Anat Zohar, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, conducted an extensive investigation of gender differences in the learning of physics. They took my notion of the quest for understanding that I had found to be prevalent among girls in math classes and considered whether it was also prevalent among girls in physics classes. They found, resoundingly, that it was. The researchers drew from a database of approximately four hundred high schools in Israel that offered advanced-placement physics classes. They sampled fifty students from the schools and interviewed twenty-five girls and twenty-five boys. They found that the girls in physics classes were exhibiting the same preferences that I had found in mathematics classes, resisting the requirement to memorize without understanding, saying that it was “driving them nuts.” The girls talked about wanting to know why methods worked and how they were linked. The authors concluded that “although both girls and boys in the advanced-placement physics classes share a quest for understanding, girls strive for it much more urgently than boys, and seem to suffer academically more than boys do in a classroom culture that does not value it.” 2

Neither the female math students I interviewed nor the female physics students interviewed in Israel wanted an easier science or math. They did not need or want softer versions of the subjects. In fact, the versions of mathematics and science they wanted required considerable depth of thought. In both cases the

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