Professor Jo Boaler wrote “The Elephant in the Classroom” about children’s performance on standardized math exams in the UK. She suggests that the elephant in the classroom is the pervasive idea that the ability to understand mathematics is something you either have or you don’t. It’s assumed that kids can either do math or they can’t, and if they can’t then there’s no way to change that. Boaler goes on in her book to describe ways to shoo the proverbial elephant out of our classrooms and bring back active, participatory learning.
A recent issue of Psychological Science published a study where boys and girls grades 5-11 were given a questionnaire where they were asked about how anxious they were about solving math problems. The girls scored much higher on anxiety than the boys did. However, when they were given a math exam and asked to self-report anxiety during and after the exam, the girls didn’t feel any of the anxiety they were reporting before the exam started, and on top of that, these girls did just as well on the exam as the boys did.
Another study in Psychological Science looked at this phenomenon in a different light. Entity theories, beliefs about our innate ability to do something, like “girls are bad at math”, suggest that boys and girls can internalize outside stigmas about their own identities and will perform accordingly. Children with entity theories about math and science are less likely to perform as well as children without identity theories. Conversely, in Boaler’s “The Elephant in the Classroom” Boaler tells us about a world where mathematic (and by extension scientific ability) isn’t an innate skill but something that we learn.
This hasn’t always been the case, Nancy Shute, in U.S. and World News wrote, “In 1980, psychologists Julian Stanley and Camilla Benbow ignited a firestorm when they proposed that gifted boys did better at math than gifted girls because of a "math gene." Almost thirty years later, the president of Harvard University echoed this idea. Eight years ago, Lawrence Summers, former Harvard University President, suggested that women and men were biologically different, and he believed these differences are the reason that men achieve more success than women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Summers is not alone in his opinion. Many people (men, women, and children alike) have bought into the myth that women just aren’t “naturally” as good at math and science as men are. The converse is the generalization that believes that women are better at writing and language based fields than men.
Perhaps this myth is so pervasive because we know that female brains are about 8% smaller than male brains. What wasn’t mentioned in this study was the average body size differences. Generally, men are taller than women and the circumference of our heads is proportionate to our brain size. This is just one more reason that this argument doesn’t hold water. We’ve known this for decades upon decades, and this fact has been used to argue that women are simply not as smart as men. However, a new study has shown that male and female brains, while different, perform at the same levels due to differences in efficiency of specific brain structures So while men and women do have brains that function slightly differently, they are able achieve the same goals.
People with ideas like Lawrence Summers encourage stereotypes that children then adopt as entity theories about themselves. In the case of mathematics and science, this has been harmful for girls. But how does this affect boys?
There has been an international call to arms for teachers of young children to try to encourage boys to read. However, many of the ideas on how to get boys to read (something no one is worried about when it comes to the girl-market) are “perfectly horrible” to quote Thomas Spence in his Wall Street Journal article.
The people trying to get boys to read have the mentality of meeting in the middle with these disinterested boys. Instead of encouraging high-level, critical reading experiences, these people are pushing a Goosebumps reading experience that panders to prepubescent boy humor. Additionally, NPR (National Public Radio) has gotten involved with a campaign called “Guys Read” that posts excerpts of potentially enticing books to its website to hook the casual boy-reader.
Christina Hoff Sommers, in her New York Times article closes out this idea of boys falling behind by citing a study conducted by Cornwell and colleagues at University of Georgia and Columbia University. The study looks at the disparity between standardized test grades and overall grades received with regards to gender. Boys do better on standardized tests than girls in elementary school, but girls get better grades given by the teacher than boys. The researchers discovered that the most important factor in determining a child’s grades given by a teacher is an abstract concept called the “approaches towards learning” which the article explains as, “attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility, and organization”. The study argues this is something that is naturally geared more towards the success of girls than boys. The study continues to explain that girls’ behavior is idealized in schools, while boys are treated like, “defective girls.”
In short, the academic world has shortcomings for both boys and girls. Girls’ behavior is rewarded over boys’, but at the same time boys are told they’re just “smarter” than girls. Girls believe these outright lies, adopt this thinking, and end up choosing careers that are more socially “suitable.” Our stereotypes aren’t helping anyone when girls “can’t” do math and boys “can’t” read.