To narrow the gender gap in mathematics, elementary schools should place greater emphasis on solving problems in the early grades, says a recent article in Theory and Research in Education.
What the debate on the gender gap in math frequently ignores, says researcher Ana Villalobos, is that girls outperform boys in computational mathematics in the early grades. It is only later that the performance gap appears, she says, timed often with more problem-solving operations.
A mechanism of “strategy socialization” may be at play, leading girls to outperform boys in computation and boys to outperform girls in problem-solving, she says. The gender gap in math is often described as the result of bias and/or of socialization differences. Girls may do better in computational math precisely because these operations require following rules and are more in keeping with accepted behaviors for girls, the researcher says. Solving problems requires more risk-taking and challenging behaviors, which is more socially acceptable for boys, and is one reason boys may later outperform girls, she observes.
“Owing to greater pressures to follow rules and avoid risks, girls who adhere to their socialization should both get better grades than boys and surpass boys in algorithmic abilities necessary for success in computations,” Villalobos writes. “At the same time, boys who adhere to their characteristic socialization should surpass girls in problem-solving, which comes later in the curriculum.”
Girls’ success in computation may reinforce risk-avoidance and failure-aversion which are detrimental in problem solving, the researcher says. The curricular shift from computations to problem-solving is jolting and anxiety-producing for girls. Elementary schools should encourage students to take mental risks in math, try out their own ideas, question processes and learn from their failed attempts rather than experience math practices as “wrong” or “right”.
Greater emphasis on problem solving at all grade levels is part of the “Agenda for Action” drafted in the late 1970s by The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the researcher says. “If both the rules and the questioning of the rules were presented on each leg of the journey, it would be less difficult for girls, and indeed all students, to adjust to the sudden rigors of reason,” she writes.
“The importance of breaking set Socialized cognitive strategies and the gender discrepancy in mathematics,” Ana Villalobos, Theory and Research in Education, Volume 7, Number 1, 2009, pp. 27-45.