Breaking Through the Math Ceiling: Exploring Female Achievement in Mathematics


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





I can’t find the “Less” in the Middle of so much “More”.


I’ve not written much since I have been home from my Fulbright experience in Finland where I became the champion for the Finnish concept of “Less is More“.  The truth is I quickly realized that I couldn’t make the Finnish “less” work in the middle of all of the American “more”. Within weeks of returning from Finland feeling fresh, rejuvenated and free of business, I found myself more committed, more scheduled, and more stressed than ever before.

I got completely sucked back into the outrageously busy lifestyle of the Typical American.  When I returned I was simply too occupied and drained mentally and emotionally to write.   I didn’t have the time, energy or the stillness required to produce good and thoughtful writing.  The days of my peaceful and quite Finnish lifestyle full of self-reflection and introspection were over.  They were replaced with days of my to-go-coffee, 10-minute lunch breaks and penciled in meetings.

Forgetting everything I loved and observed in Finnish classrooms, I fell right back into the swing of the American teacher lifestyle.  Each day I have 192 students, 7 classes and high expectations and demands.  I became consumed once again. I was putting in 12-hour days filled with grading hundreds of tests and assignments.

I quickly realized that the Finnish mentality does not work in our American schools. I tried some Finnish classroom ideas on my students.  I tried to ease up on the homework assigned.   I tried to adopt the “less is more” concept to my teaching and my classroom, but it did not work.  Our Society has created a structure that is too integrated with our competitive culture for the Finnish mindset to be effective.  My 7th grade students didn’t know how to adapt to a school mode based on less structure, less competitiveness and less formal accountability.

And if I am being honest, I didn’t know how to adapt my teaching either.  It took me all of three hours back in the school setting to feel the weight of the substantial curriculum I was expected to cover in a year.  I forgot how much our 12-year-old students were required to learn in only a few short months.

I soon understood that a Finnish pace was not going to cut it in our results-centric culture.   If I want my students to succeed in our society I would have to pick up my pace.  I would have to do more, not less.  I am ashamed to admit how quickly I relapsed back into the nasty American obsession with testing and results.

At the end of the day, the heart of the American spirit is competition.  Those who succeed in this country have worked the hardest and have pushed themselves to their highest levels. They really have done more, not less.  As teachers we are expected to demand excellence from our students and push them to compete to become the best.  This mentality is non-existent in Finland but also impossible to remove from American education.

Our students are truly remarkable.  What we expect and demand from them really is too much.   They have 7 to 8 classes a day, homework, sports practice, violin lessons and are also expected to get straight A’s and maintain a normal social life.  These are impossible standards for most adults, let alone 12-year-old kids.

I often feel guilty about pushing them so hard. The new standards expect my 7th graders to think and reason like PHD students. I am expected, no demanded, to lead them in that thought process regardless if they are developmentally ready for such advanced level thinking. The standards seem impossibly high.

Yet I am reminded  daily that I preparing them for an American work force that demands and expects too much of them as well.  It is our culture.  It is our identity.  Heck, It is the American dream.  We taught to believe that if you work hard enough, and do and accomplish enough you will eventually rise to the top.   The top of what and for what nobody knows. But the top is the best. Right? Maybe Not.

But this mentality exists so permanently in our culture that trying to remove it completely from the classroom would do our students a disservice. If they are going to succeed in our society, they have to learn to cope in high stress situations.  They have to learn to aim high and work hard.

As Finland demonstrates, this ultra competitive results driven philosophy on education is not necessarily the best method. I really do believe in the Finnish mindset of Less is More. I stand by what I wrote last spring. The problem is that until we change the societal expectations and our broad education systems, this Finnish mentality will not work.   The state, nation and even the parents of my students demand I push students to reach their fullest potential. I am not a good teacher unless I get them to work hard and push them to be their best.

In the United states we do not teach to the middle (the universally achievable average) as Finland does.   Instead of teaching to the middle like Finland, our standards aim for the very top level of possible performance.  We put expectations that are so high that only a select few are capable of reaching.  The result is we have a group of truly elite scholars and a group of those left in the dark.   Education mirrors society and while we are very good at getting a big group of students ahead in life, we also leave behind those who can’t cope with our demands and expectations.

I had huge hopes to remedy this sad truth.  But I failed miserably.  I tried to incorporate the Finnish mentality I had observed in Finland to my classroom.  However I, being American through and through, soon felt like I was failing my students. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was a bad teacher for not pushing and challenging them to think more critically, do more problem solving and cover more content and problems.  I really felt like I was not doing my job and that they were not learning enough. And so, like a fraud, before I knew it I had abandoned my mantra and dove headfirst back into the “More is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to make the Finnish mentality work in the midst of our American system of high stake testing and competition.  And so I remained silent.  I stopped writing.

I have lost the Finnish “Less” in the middle of all of the American “More”.

I am not sure how to find the “less” here in the midst of the swamped, hectic demands of our society.  And in some ways I enjoy my teeming American “More” abuzz with excitement, engagements and achievements.  And at the same time, there are days I yearn for Finnish simplicity and quiet calm.

And so I am stuck here in the middle struggling between two conflicting philosophies.   I understand both sides of the road and I am confused on how to best navigate. I believe in everything I stated before, Finnish success really is based on the “Less is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to function as a Finn here in my American classroom or in my American life.  It feels like a fight against a strong current.  Right now I don’t have the answers, I really do feel quite stuck. In the mean time I will try to find a way to incorporate a little more “less” in this world of so much “more.”  Until then, I am here writing my thoughts and trying my best. Thank you for listening.