What's Math Got to Do with It?: How Teachers and Parents Can Transform Mathematics Learning and Inspire Success

What's Math Got to Do with It?: How Teachers and Parents Can Transform Mathematics Learning and Inspire Success by Jo Boaler Page A

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Authors: Jo Boaler
girls wanted opportunities to inquire deeply, and they were averse to versions of the subjects that emphasized rote learning. This was true of boys and girls, but when girls were denied access to a deep, connected understanding, they turned away from the subject.
    The differences that have been found between girls and boys in mathematics and physics classes do not suggest that all girls behave in one way and all boys in another. Indeed, Zohar and Sela found that one-third of the boys they interviewed also expressed strong preferences for a deep, connected understanding. But they, like I, found that girls consistently expressed such preferences in higher numbers and with more intensity. Such gender differences are interesting , and they may also hold the key to understanding women’s low levels of participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects .
    The idea that girls and women value a different type of knowing was famously proposed by Carol Gilligan, an internationally acclaimed psychologist and author. In Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice, she claimed that women are likely to be “connected thinkers,” preferring to use intuition, creativity, and personal experience when making moral judgments. Men, she proposed, are more likely to be “separate” thinkers, preferring to use logic, rigor, absolute truth, and rationality when making moral decisions. 3 Gilligan’s work met a lot of resistance, but it also received support from women who identified with the thinking styles she described. Some years later a group of researchers developed Gilligan’s distinctions further, claiming thatmen and women differ in their ways of knowing, more generally. Psychologists Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule, 4 proposed stages of knowing, and again claimed that men tended to be separate thinkers and women connected thinkers. The authors did not have a lot of data to support their claims that women and men think differently, and they received considerable opposition, which is understandable given that they were suggesting fundamental distinctions in the way women and men come to think and know. When I reported my own findings, that girls were particularly disadvantaged by traditional instruction that did not give them access to knowing how and why, I also received resistance. Indeed, some of my colleagues challenged me, saying that it was not possible that girls would have different preferences from boys in such a cognitive domain. But there are many reasons why girls may develop different preferences and a stronger push for understanding, ranging from known brain differences to vastly different socialization processes. For me the question of why girls pursue a depth of understanding in greater numbers than boys do is less important than the question of how we can change mathematics environments so that all students can understand deeply, and so that girls and boys not only can achieve at equal levels but can also pursue STEM subjects in equal numbers.
    Classes in which students discuss concepts, giving them access to a deep and connected understanding of math, are good for girls and for boys. Boys may be willing to work in isolation on abstract rules, but such approaches do not give many students, girls or boys, access to the understanding they need. In addition, high-level work in mathematics, science, and engineering is not about isolated, abstract-rule following, but about collaboration and connection making.
    There are plenty of boys who value and need connectionsand communication and who choose other subjects because mathematics does not offer these, just as there are girls who can happily work in isolation without mathematical connections. If mathematics teaching included opportunities for discussion of concepts, for depth of understanding, and for connecting between mathematical concepts, then it would be more equitable and good for both sexes, and it would give a

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