Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cultural Math Phobia

A number of years ago, I heard a friend tell a group of children that she didn’t like math and was so bad at it that she couldn’t even balance her check book. My friend, an educated woman with a master’s degree, wouldn’t think of standing before a group of people and announcing, “Ha, ha, I can only read to a third grade level.” The skills needed to do the arithmetic of balancing a checkbook are those that should be mastered by the third grade. Children learn fears from their parents, especially the primary care giver. My friend’s older daughter, then in the first grade, was already telling her mom that she didn’t like math.

A few years later I had a conversation with another friend’s 7 year-old daughter who was in the 2nd grade. She was reading a book that was advanced for her age, at least by two grade levels. I asked the child about math. She told me she didn’t care for math. She also wasn’t able to count by fives or tens, tasks that can be, and should be, mastered by Kindergarten students. Both of her parents are doctors. In other words, they are highly educated.

On October 25, 1992, Joel Kurtzman, of the New York Times wrote: “No More Math Phobia for Barbie For decades Barbie dressed her way into the top of the toy world. Then Mattel Inc. taught her to talk. Among other things, Mattel had Barbie lament that "math class is tough." That phrase -- one of 270 the doll can utter -- caught the ire of the American Association of University Women. Barbie's complaint, the association said, could undermine confidence among girls in their mathematical abilities. "The last thing we would intentionally do would be to have Barbie convey anything but the most aspirational of messages," said Jill E. Barad, Mattel's president. Mattel said last week it would remove the phrase from Barbie's microchip”.

It is stunning to me that Mattel didn’t have any qualms about putting the math is hard message into Barbie’s mouth, until I think about the relative size of Barbie’s breasts to the size of her feet (an obvious conundrum of scale), and then it seems to make sense.

We live in a culture where we put a high value on literacy from a young age. Parents read to their children, take them to the library, buy them books, and help them to learn to read by reinforcing reading skills in their daily lives. For most members of our culture, even highly educated ones, like the president of Mattel, the value of numeracy or mathematical literacy is virtually nonexistent (Is it coincidental that my MS Word program’s spell check feature knows the word innumeracy, but not numeracy which it keeps telling me that I’ve misspelled?)

Thankfully the recently published report by the National Mathematical Advisory Panel indicates that there needs to be a shift in public thinking.

Social, Motivational, and Affective Influences
Understanding how children gain proficiency in mathematics requires more than knowledge about how they learn in content areas. Children’s goals and beliefs about learning are also critical.
Children who seek to master an academic topic are said to have mastery-oriented goals. These children show better long-term academic development in mathematics than do their peers whose main goals are to get good grades or outperform others. Students who believe learning mathematics is strongly related to innate ability show less persistence on complex tasks than peers who believe that effort is more important.
Experimental studies have demonstrated that children’s beliefs about the relative importance of effort and ability or inherent talent can be changed, and that increased emphasis on the importance of effort is related to greater engagement in mathematics learning and, through this engagement, improved mathematics grades and achievement.
Research demonstrating that beliefs about effort matter and that these beliefs can be changed is critical. Much of the public’s resignation about mathematics education (together with the common tendencies to dismiss weak achievement and to give up early) seems rooted in the idea that success in mathematics is largely a matter of inherent talent, not effort.
Recommendation: The Panel recommends that teachers and other educational leaders use research-based interventions to help students and parents understand the vital importance of effort in learning mathematics.

I wonder if we’ll see regular public service announcements… funded by Mattel?

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