Distance Learning

One Positive Impact of COVID-19 Policy on Math Education and Gender Equity

Online learning helped us deal with girls' math phobias.

"I can't read." Not many adults would be happy to admit this. but somehow it is acceptable to say, "Me? I'm no good at numbers." It isn't seen as a slur on someone's intelligence or a sign of a poor education. It is as if being good at math is a gift like being a brilliant musician or a talented artist. This is strange as there are so many types of math. For example, there is numeracy that will require calculation and estimation; algebra which involves problem solving; geometry that entails spatial awareness, calculus that calls for abstract thinking. That is a lot of different things to be "no good at."

Carol Dweck's work showed us that about 40% of students have a damaging “fixed mindset” that makes them say I'm no good at this; another 40% believe that with the right conditions they can learn more and get better at doing math. The remaining 20% waver between the two views.1

Girls are more hesitant about math, and their lack of confidence compounds the problem. Whether taking a test or calculating a restaurant bill, some expect to fail before they start. Research in 2010 showed that the math-anxiety of female elementary school teachers could affect their female students: "There was no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year."

By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.” Since some 90% of early elementary school teachers in the United States are female, we as educators need to make women strong and confident mathematicians.(Sian L. Beilock, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, Susan C. Levine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2010, 107 (5) 1860-1863; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910967107)

Education has changed in many ways since that research. At Design Tech High School we have many female teachers who are confident in their subject abilities and are strong role models for the next generation. All students use a broad range of technologies in their learning. Whether this is using 3D printers, laser cutters or design software as potential tools to express and realize their ideas, we feel that it is vital for them to learn to handle new technologies comfortably.

The ‘design’ part reflects our math program. Instead of the outdated rote learning approach to reciting math facts, students learn to make mathematical connections. This approach is about changing the mindset and giving learners the tools and confidence to develop strategies, encouraging them to have a go and try things for themselves.

Teaching in this way, we can offer the students more interesting learning experiences where they can understand the application of mathematical skills in their lives, whether that is understanding the interest on store cards or the math needed for robotics.

COVID-19 disrupted our lives and as learning went online we wondered how our students would cope, especially the girls who were anxious about math. Not all children thrived on remote learning, but it made a contribution, especially for those girls who were motivated to improve their math.

While many would sigh over a worksheet, they were more than happy to engage with math problems that were delivered in a video game format. We used Mangahigh, which proved to be the right digital program for our learners to learn remotely. A resource such as this can help teachers to provide a differentiated approach to learning that let girls work autonomously at their own pace. Working at home, away from the distractions of the classroom, we found that many of them thrived. They enjoyed the challenges that Mangahigh provided and were looking at a problem-solving approach, rather then the right answer.

We are noticing that some are now asking for help when once they would have avoided a math conversation at all costs. Now they are developing a sense of optimism and self-efficacy and we expect to see stronger more assured mathematicians going on to college.

It is only when students gain a conceptual understanding of how various mathematical notions can be linked and used to solve problems, that math comes to life and becomes relevant. Once girls see realistic opportunities they can apply for in science, technology, engineering and math, they will start to take higher math in high school and take a more serious look at STEM careers.

About the Author

Karen Atkinson is a teacher of geometry and pre-calculus at Design Tech High School in Redwood Shores, CA.