Breaking Through the Math Ceiling: Exploring Female Achievement in Mathematics

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Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

While I have shared many of my thoughts and opinions on Finnish Education systems, I have not, as yet, shared my actual research. I did not think it was finished or perfect and so I kept the project to myself. My four short months in Finland were not suitable to produce the type of research I wanted, but it was enough to give me an overall picture of the problem, which you can explore by reading my report as posted above.

I went to Finland with the intent of studying female achievement in mathematics after discovering that Finland is one of the few countries where the girls outscored the boys in mathematics. Finland’s girls especially excelled in PISA’s problem-solving category. They performed much higher in this category than even Sweden their “sister” nation to the west. As a female math teacher this information intrigued me. I wanted to know what Finland was doing to promote female achievement in mathematics and problem solving.The above and adjacent link is the PDF of my research report. Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

The purpose of this Fulbright Grant was to give girls the confidence in their abilities to think and express themselves mathematically. My objective was to study the cause of the widespread gender disparity in mathematics education, learn best teaching practices from Finland, a country internationally acclaimed for supporting female development in mathematics, and create a stateside program that empowers and supports girls and teachers within the mathematics field.

My time in Helsinki was spent studying how Finland’s school systems teach and train young girls and their teachers to be confident in mathematics. One of the main reasons girls struggle with mathematics is due to their crippling fear of being wrong. This hesitancy to take risks is a cultural issue that is fueled by certain educational practices. I elaborate on this psychological phenomenon in more detail in the report.

I also discovered that girls learn to have a negative attitude towards the subject from parents and sometimes even teachers who themselves suffer from math anxiety.   I desired to learn how to  create a positive learning environment that allows girls to feel safe, work together, take risks, and learn in a way that will empower them to think mathematically.

I believe that lack of confidence in mathematical ability is the biggest obstacle to female success in the mathematics classroom. I had several theories as to how Finland combated this fear and disdain for mathematics. My hypothesis was that it was a combination of classroom environment, cultural biases, learned math anxiety and teacher training that contributed to Finland’s success in promoting female achievement.

I discovered that one of the largest contributing factors to student attitude  towards mathematics was a teacher’s own opinions, attitude toward and ability in mathematics. Female students are more perceptive and aware of others feelings and attitudes.  Many female students have been trained to believe that math is difficult,tricky and obstinately rigid.  Female students are not taught to think of math as the beautiful, fluid and flexible science that artfully and creatively explains the world around us. 

Finland has a lot of great things going for its education system. It provides fair equitable education to all students. They also do not over stress their students and have truly mastered the concept of “less is more” which I wrote about earlier. They are able to achieve great things with fewer formal lessons and classes.   Their kids are not over worked to the point of exhaustion or surrender.   Finland has trained its students to be independent self-motivated individuals.

However, when discussing female achievement in mathematics, I am not sure that Finland has the overall answer.   While Finland’s low stress, slow paced classroom environments give girls overall less anxiety and apprehension towards the subject, I do not think they are actually out performing highly motivated U.S. Students. I suspect that the Law of averages is allowing Finnish students to stay on top of PISA scores, which I have explained in my blog post about The Three Real Reasons for Finland’s Success.   Everyone in Finland does well- a little bit above average.  Yet very few do extremely well (by American standards anyway).  On the flip side very few fail either. Finland has found a nice sweet spot where everyone can learn and achieve. However, few are being pushed to reach his or her highest potential either. Finland’s collective average is high because everyone does at least okay.

Through my observations and interviews I began to feel as if instead of discovering an unusually high level of female achievement in Finland I was actually uncovering a lack of male achievement.   Globally, the difference in gender achievement in mathematics is at the high end of the spectrum. There are the same number of girls and boys struggling with mathematics at the low end of the achievement spectrum.

Males tend to be the most gifted mathematically and that high achievement in math is not to be found in Finland. I did not find mathematically gifted and talented males or females in Finland. The Finnish students are simply not pushed to reach those extremes. And so, without the usually highly gifted few male to bring up the male average, we see the highly motivated hardworking girls take the lead for its country.   This is perhaps something Finland needs to further explore.

The below PDF was my research report submitted to the Fulbright department.  I am not oblivious to the fact that it isn’t perfect research.  I need to do so much more work  in order for it to be complete and publishable.  My vanity was perhaps why I waited so long to share it with you,  but I decided it was better to share than to keep to myself.  I hope to one day continue this research, but for now this will do.

Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Breaking Through the Math Ceiling: Exploring Female Achievement in Mathematics

  1. You might also be interested in the fact that the Finnish children I saw were quiet and well-behaved which makes it much easier to teach in a classroom.

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  2. I am currently teaching at a high school in Japan. Japan is also a country that scores quite high when it comes to achievement in mathematics (and Science). I believe that classroom behaviour (they are also well-behaved), culture (very rarely is any child ever late for class or absent from school), and level of instruction (in comparison to Canada, where I have taught math for several years, the level of math instruction here is about 2 grades above what we are teaching in Canada) play a large part in achievement.

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  3. Taiwan Teacher
    What a wonderful article. I loved reading it all especially the pdf with its detailed examples of math questions Elementary school teachers failed. I.have put 2 stepsons through the system; one is an exceptional math student and the other is the exact opposite! In Taiwan the system favors the elite students and they get all the resources and the ‘non academic’ are just left behind so the average you mention shows why this country receives a lower PISA ranking. The average university entrance test score for math is 24%- yes, that’s correct! So there are many students here who are terrified of math across the genders and the system still powers on leaving the majority as failures in its wake because the focus is on the elite. This should dispel the myth that ‘asians’ are good at math. It’s just that we don’t get to see these students!

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  4. Further to my previous comments I would suggest that Debbie and Sandra get out to the tougher schools and see the big picture of asian schools with wild disruptive disrespectful students. If one visits elite schools in the west you’ll find similar experiences to their comments .

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  5. I actually agree with what you said about girls are afraid of getting it wrong. I thought I was dumb with math and therefore didn’t like math, just because I didn’t understand a section of math in high school. My grandma said she was bad at math, so I just thought, well I’m like her. Now going back, I changed my mindset, gave math another shot, and am doing a lot better! who knew I could get high marks in a subject I was afraid of.

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