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Erin Stewart: Getting our girls not to give up on math

Erin Stewart shares how practice can help girls (and boys) discover a love of math.
Erin Stewart shares how practice can help girls (and boys) discover a love of math.
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As a child, I decided early on in my school years that I was not good at math. Language and history were my thing, and so I pursued those subjects passionately with camps, extra programs and a general sense that I had found my calling in life.

Fast forward a few decades and I’ve made a career out of words. To this day, I still hate math.

My oldest daughter, who is starting sixth grade this year, loves math. She also likes to write and read and all the other things I loved to do as a child, but she actually enjoys doing math. To me, this is mind-boggling.

So when I read an op-ed piece recently about how girls tend to shy away from math in their early school years, I wondered if my dislike of all things mathematics stemmed less from an actual lack of skill or a belief that I was simply not good at math.

Barbara Oakley writes in a piece in The New York Times with the headline "Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later," that according to research, girls have a consistent advantage in reading and writing over boys, even though their math skills are just as good as boys.

“The consequence? A typical little boy can think he’s better at math than language arts. But a typical little girl can think she’s better at language arts than math. As a result, when she sits down to do math, she might be more likely to say, 'I’m not that good at this!' She actually is just as good (on average) as a boy at the math — it’s just that she’s even better at language arts,” she writes.

This false impression that girls are not as good at math leads many girls (who often want to please parents and teachers) to focus their academic energies on the area where they feel they excel the most: language arts. And they leave the math to the boys.

“Unfortunately, thinking you’re not very good at something can be a quick path to disliking and avoiding it, even if you do have natural ability,” Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan, writes. “You can begin to avoid practicing it, because to your mind, that practice is more painful than learning what comes more easily. Not practicing, in turn, transforms what started out as a mere aversion into a genuine lack of competence.”

So even if girls start out being just as good at math, they end up not being as skilled because they opt out and decide math is just not "their thing." Oakley recommends one way to keep this from happening is to encourage girls and boys to practice math just like you’d practice an instrument or a language. Understanding how math concepts work is all well and good, she writes, but actually being able to work the math problems often requires work and discipline.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t given up on math so easily. I have no idea if I ever had a natural ability for it, but I do know that somewhere along the way I decided I was bad at math and that self-imposed definition has stuck with me throughout my life.

I’m determined not to let my own daughters go down the same path. I’m not saying they’re going to be mathematicians or anything (though they might!), but I at least want them to give equal brain power to math as they do to language arts.

A few years ago, I was explaining our summer “learning schedule” to a teacher friend. I was so proud of myself that I had a whole system so my kids would have to write and read every day of the summer. When I got done patting myself on the back, she looked at me and said, “OK, but where’s the math?”

I had totally omitted the math because subconsciously I didn’t think it mattered. Now, math is a big part of our summer homework and includes math games and Khan Academy, a free online instruction program. My oldest daughter has spent countless hours this summer working her way through the sixth-grade curriculum. She loves that the program teaches you how and why math problems work, and then makes you prove mastery before moving on to a new topic.

My other daughter is not so into math, but we encourage her to practice anyway. Like any parent, I want my children to have as many avenues open to them in life as possible, and I’d hate to see them close the path to math before they’ve even had a chance to open the door.