# Math class is hard.

January 28, 2010 8:05 AM Subscribe

*Early elementary school teachers in the United States are almost exclusively female (>90%), and we provide evidence that these female teachers’ anxieties relate to girls’ math achievement via girls’ beliefs about who is good at math.*A study (abstract and full-text [pdf]) by the University of Chicago Department of Psychology and Committee on Education found a link between math anxiety in elementary school teachers and their female students' math abilities.

The authors identify the causal link as: (1) minimal math requirements for majors in elementary education attract college students with higher levels math anxiety, (2) an overwhelming majority of these graduates who go on to teach elementary school are female, and (3) the teachers pass on their anxiety about math to their female students by acting as models for who is or isn't good at math.

Maybe they have this backwards. Maybe the same sorts of societal pressures that cause female math anxiety also push women into "traditional" work roles like taking care of young kids. Perhaps there is a circle of oppression that feeds in both directions?

posted by Pollomacho at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by Pollomacho at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2010

Wow, that's interesting. I'm sure there will be quite a rebound in this thread, but the idea that lack of math experience and high math anxiety begets poor math skills and high math anxiety seems pretty solid. As a part of my grad training, I've reviewed Ed curricula for three local universities, and they were, mathematically speaking, stunningly deficient.

There's a similar trend in our Psych department. Most of the undergraduate students say they're "not interested in math" and by far the most anxiety-inducing course is introductory statistics. What's stunning is that when helping these students with their work, they consistently report that they want to "help people, not do research" but they don't seem to understand or acknowledge the connection between quantitative abilities and helping people (statistical problem solving) or basic research and helping people (scientific problem solving). This same attitude is exhibited by many of the faculty, as well.

posted by fake at 8:15 AM on January 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

There's a similar trend in our Psych department. Most of the undergraduate students say they're "not interested in math" and by far the most anxiety-inducing course is introductory statistics. What's stunning is that when helping these students with their work, they consistently report that they want to "help people, not do research" but they don't seem to understand or acknowledge the connection between quantitative abilities and helping people (statistical problem solving) or basic research and helping people (scientific problem solving). This same attitude is exhibited by many of the faculty, as well.

posted by fake at 8:15 AM on January 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

I sent this to my oldest daughter, who is studying to be an early elementary school teacher. She always did quite well in math so I hope she influences her students in a positive way.

posted by tommasz at 8:17 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by tommasz at 8:17 AM on January 28, 2010

*Did they do a related study with math-anxious male teachers to see if it correlates to male student math anxiety?*

What does your proposed modification offer when "

*Early elementary school teachers in the United States are almost exclusively female (>90%)*"?

posted by fake at 8:18 AM on January 28, 2010

I've been saying this for years! In 1985 I went back to school at a state college in upstate NY to get certified to teach elementary school. I was in a cohort of about 100 students- only one of whom was male. I did an informal survey, I asked my classmates why they wanted to be teachers.

The most common reply was, of course, that they loved kids. The second most common, restated over and over again, was that they sucked at math and couldn't get into any other major because the others all required more math!

I was appalled that these young women were going to introduce children to math. (I was also appalled that so few of them enjoyed reading and would be introducing kids to reading, but that's another story.)

I think we have a major self-perpetuating problem on our hands here!

posted by mareli at 8:23 AM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

The most common reply was, of course, that they loved kids. The second most common, restated over and over again, was that they sucked at math and couldn't get into any other major because the others all required more math!

I was appalled that these young women were going to introduce children to math. (I was also appalled that so few of them enjoyed reading and would be introducing kids to reading, but that's another story.)

I think we have a major self-perpetuating problem on our hands here!

posted by mareli at 8:23 AM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

*Barbie says: "Math is hard!"*

To be fair to Barbie, that was Malibu Stacy. What Barbie said was marginally better, "Math class is tough."

posted by Pollomacho at 8:26 AM on January 28, 2010

*What does your proposed modification offer when "Early elementary school teachers in the United States are almost exclusively female (>90%)"?*

First, it wasn't a snark, it was a legit question. Wasn't sure what approach you were taking to your response, so I wanted to clear that up.

Second, my thought was that if 90% of elementary teachers are female, how do you know that this isn't a identification issue period, rather than just a adult female to young girl issue? In other words, without seeing what the connection between overall same sex math anxiety is, why does this automatically become a 'female' issue?

My curiosity in that regard is simply because in the abstract I didn't see anything that said something like 'in the small percentage of male to males that we studied, we did not see any correlation between boys' math anxiety and anxiety of the male teacher'.

I just figured that's a pretty important control if you're going to theorize that it's a female problem.

posted by spicynuts at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh, and further to Barbie's defense her math professor for Pre-med

posted by Pollomacho at 8:29 AM on January 28, 2010

*was*Helga von Baulbriechter.posted by Pollomacho at 8:29 AM on January 28, 2010

True story: roommate in college would regularly "double check" her fiancees super-basic-intro math class homework (he was going for his elem ed degree). Other roommate and I knew she was actually

Yep.

posted by sararah at 8:32 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

*completing*his super-basic-intro math homework.Yep.

posted by sararah at 8:32 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and this problem totally perpetuates into middle- and secondary-ed teachers, who were

I loved abstract algebra. THERE. I SAID IT.

posted by sararah at 8:37 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

*actually math majors*in college. The math majors in college that were going for their secondary-ed certificates bitched and bitched and bitched their way through abstract algebra. Guys and girls. That was the only 400-level math class they had to take, but oh man, the bitching.I loved abstract algebra. THERE. I SAID IT.

posted by sararah at 8:37 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

For example, there are about 2.5 million elementary teachers in the US (I didn't, ironically, actually add up all those totals, I just did a quick guestimate). 10% of that is 250,000. That's a pretty good base for a study of the male correlation, isn't it? It's not like there's only 1200 male teachers.

posted by spicynuts at 8:40 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by spicynuts at 8:40 AM on January 28, 2010

spicynuts:

Because thats what the study is about: The influence of

posted by vacapinta at 8:40 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

*Second, my thought was that if 90% of elementary teachers are female, how do you know that this isn't a identification issue period, rather than just a adult female to young girl issue? In other words, without seeing what the connection between overall same sex math anxiety is, why does this automatically become a 'female' issue?*Because thats what the study is about: The influence of

**female**teachers on**female**students. They dont need to control for male teachers because that is outside the scope of the study. Whether this is a broader gender issue is perhaps a follow-up study.

Our ﬁrst hypothesis was that the more math anxiety a female

teacher had, the lower her students’ math achievement would be.

Our second hypothesis was that this relation would only hold for

girls. Finally, our third hypothesis was that any relation between

female teachers’ math anxiety and girls’ math achievement that

did exist could be accounted for by whether girls in these teachers’

classrooms believed in traditional academic gender stereotypes

(i.e., boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading).

Our ﬁrst hypothesis was that the more math anxiety a female

teacher had, the lower her students’ math achievement would be.

Our second hypothesis was that this relation would only hold for

girls. Finally, our third hypothesis was that any relation between

female teachers’ math anxiety and girls’ math achievement that

did exist could be accounted for by whether girls in these teachers’

classrooms believed in traditional academic gender stereotypes

(i.e., boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading).

posted by vacapinta at 8:40 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

*"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” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall."*

Hmmm. I think that last sentence could easily be reversed to read: "Indeed, by the end of the school year girls who had significantly worse math achievement endorsed this stereotype more than girls who did not and than boys overall". Misery loving company would seem less of a reach to me. Especially at that level. I never saw Mrs. Dubson quake in the face of plusses and minuses.

posted by vapidave at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2010

*her fiancees super-basic-intro math class homework (he was going for his elem ed degree)*

Pedantry, but it made me have to read your post twice - fiancé means male betrothed (as you intended), whereas fiancée means female betrothed (as you wrote). It is, of course, a French thing, and you can generally get away with writing fiancé for males or females, but generally when you write fiancée, you definitely are talking about a woman.

posted by TypographicalError at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

The study did not involve any male teachers. Claiming that the article suggests this is a "female problem" on the teacher side is a misreading. It's effectively a "female problem" on the student side, because very few students have male teachers as is cited in the blurb. I don't think the authors are suggesting that females are necessarily more susceptible to this sort of anxiety-transmission. The point is that there is a gender differential in anxiety-transmission that almost always disfavors female students in the present-day education environment. Doing a study on male teachers would be interesting, but wouldn't change the bottom line.

posted by kiltedtaco at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by kiltedtaco at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2010

When I was in college, I was always stunned by the "math anxiety" from the elementary education majors. I was all "you are going to be teaching this stuff to little children, shouldn't you know it?"

posted by DU at 8:44 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by DU at 8:44 AM on January 28, 2010

*First, it wasn't a snark.*

Didn't think it was, just wondering what your thinking was.

Here's my thinking. They show that it doesn't transfer from female elementary teachers to male students. That suggests that it's gender-related. Broadly speaking the problem seems to be with female math achievement and anxiety, not male. There are countless studies and observations (and equal opportunity programs) supporting this.

With that in mind, it would be a lot of work to prove a minor point. They show that female teachers influence female students at the elementary level. Since almost all students at the elementary level are being taught by females, showing that it works for males too is kind of a moot point. Less than 10% of elementary ed teachers are males, so they do not represent the bulk of the larger problem.

All gender-related claims are quite tendentious, particularly on MeFi. In Psychology and Neuroscience over the last half-decade there has been a renewed interest in gender effects (whereas for the last twenty years the general trend has been to say gender has little or no effect). Personally, I'm interested in the data and also in the economical use of science. By that, I mean in some circumstances, and I think this is one of them, it's not the best use of these researchers time to go investigating whether or not it works for males, too, simply because males aren't as involved in this stage of education.

posted by fake at 8:44 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Teachers aren't just tranferring their math anxiety on young girls, but on the entire class. There's no evidence that the boys aren't affected too. The result is our society's socially accepted innumeracy.

It saddens me that "I'm no good at math" is most often uttered not with shame, but with pride.

posted by rocket88 at 8:45 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

It saddens me that "I'm no good at math" is most often uttered not with shame, but with pride.

posted by rocket88 at 8:45 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

my wife is a very skilled middle school math teacher.. and constantly bemoans the poor skills her students have when they arrive in her classroom... but, this applies to both boys and girls....

posted by HuronBob at 8:47 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by HuronBob at 8:47 AM on January 28, 2010

*The most common reply was, of course, that they loved kids. The second most common, restated over and over again, was that they sucked at math and couldn't get into any other major because the others all required more math!*

I was appalled that these young women were going to introduce children to math. (I was also appalled that so few of them enjoyed reading and would be introducing kids to reading, but that's another story.)

I was appalled that these young women were going to introduce children to math. (I was also appalled that so few of them enjoyed reading and would be introducing kids to reading, but that's another story.)

I would say that up until later grades, being a teacher that loves (and understands how to deal with) children is significantly more important than college-level knowledge of any given subject. Sure, in a perfect world elementary school teachers would both excellent with kids and intellectuals with above-average knowledge in all sorts of subjects, but in the real world given the number of teaching positions out there and the relatively low pay, schools and teaching certification requirements can't limit the jobs to only those kinds of people.

posted by burnmp3s at 8:47 AM on January 28, 2010

*Because thats what the study is about: The influence of female teachers on female students.*

Ok, point taken. Let me rephrase my initial question. Has anyone ever done a related study on male teacher/student math anxiety to determine if this is a 'role model' type issue or if it is only related to the female to female classroom relationship regarding math?

posted by spicynuts at 8:49 AM on January 28, 2010

Basic math competence is a problem all around. I had a male math teacher in junior high who assured me that increasingly accurate calculations of the value of pi are determined by taking increasingly accurate measurements of the circumference and diameter of actual, physical circles. It wasn't until college that I learned the truth, and if I hadn't chosen a math-heavy major I might have gone my whole life believing and propagating bullshit.

So, while math anxiety in female students may be self-perpetuating as the study suggests, it would be a good idea to require all teachers to have a better grasp of mathematics.

posted by jedicus at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2010

So, while math anxiety in female students may be self-perpetuating as the study suggests, it would be a good idea to require all teachers to have a better grasp of mathematics.

posted by jedicus at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2010

*Because thats what the study is about: The influence of female teachers on female students. They dont need to control for male teachers because that is outside the scope of the study.*

But in order to determine the influence of

*female*teachers specifically, you'd have to study female

*and male*teachers and keep track of the effects of gender. (I haven't looked at the study so I don't know if they did this.) If you just study female teachers, you don't know if your findings relate specifically to female teachers or just teachers in general.

It doesn't really make sense to say that a control wasn't needed because the proposed control would be "outside the scope of the study." The whole point of a control is that it's

*not*the focus of your study.

Also, even if the gender of the teacher was "outside the scope of the study," that would raise the question of

*why*it wasn't studied. Why should we just study the effect of the students' gender? Isn't the teachers' gender also worth studying at the same time?

posted by Jaltcoh at 8:53 AM on January 28, 2010

*There's no evidence that the boys aren't affected too.*

You obviously didn't read even the abstract where they claim that male students are not as strongly affected. And you certainly didn't look at the paper where they present the evidence.

posted by kiltedtaco at 8:53 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

*They show that it doesn't transfer from female elementary teachers to male students. That suggests that it's gender-related.*

Well I guess my reading was that they were saying that the female children get clues about how to relate to math from the female teacher because the female teacher is an 'example' of adult attitude. I thought that the implication was that the same relationship did not exist between female students and male teachers because a male teacher wasn't seen by female students as a 'role model' for adult attitude. Therefore, I figured, ok well a male child might have the same relationship to a male teacher that a female student does with a female teacher. Maybe the same 'anxiety' would be transmitted.

posted by spicynuts at 8:53 AM on January 28, 2010

Huh. At my kids' school, where the lower grades all have team teachers, there is an awesome second-grade male and female teaching team. The male teacher is the head teacher, and he's amazing. But when it's time for math, the female teacher takes the lead -- she introduces new concepts, she leads the small-group math class period, she's the head teacher when it comes to math -- precisely because they both agreed that it would be good for the students, boys and girls, to have the intellectual excitement, curiosity, fun, and love of math modeled for them by a young, smart woman.

posted by mothershock at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by mothershock at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting. I'll see what Mrs. flt thinks, as she got her undergrad in math (the last few courses kicked her ass, but she loved the challenge), and she's now teaching her 2nd year of high school math. She wasn't very good at math through high school (she even had a [male] math teacher in high school who told her to stop bothering him, because he couldn't help her). There was a teacher who made it click, and that's when she started to enjoy math.

From what I've heard from Mrs. flt, it's her male students who are doing worse in classes. There are a number of boys and girls who stop early into problem solving, thinking they just can't do math. When prompted with questions like "well, what do you think the next step

Math is deemed a subject for nerds, and no one wants to be a nerd. Maybe there is a bit more math anxiety in some girls because of their elementary school role models, but I don't think I've ever seen math skills really championed. Science is also seen as being hard and geeky, but at least you can become a Scientist if you do well, and then you get to do experiments and work with test tubes and stuff. What's so great about being a Mathematician?

posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

From what I've heard from Mrs. flt, it's her male students who are doing worse in classes. There are a number of boys and girls who stop early into problem solving, thinking they just can't do math. When prompted with questions like "well, what do you think the next step

*might*be?" the kids often answer with the correct next step.Math is deemed a subject for nerds, and no one wants to be a nerd. Maybe there is a bit more math anxiety in some girls because of their elementary school role models, but I don't think I've ever seen math skills really championed. Science is also seen as being hard and geeky, but at least you can become a Scientist if you do well, and then you get to do experiments and work with test tubes and stuff. What's so great about being a Mathematician?

posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another thing: if the teachers' gender was not within "the scope of the study," then the summary in the FPP is misleading. It says that the "authors identify [one of] the causal link[s]" as the fact that "an overwhelming majority of these graduates who go on to teach elementary school are female." How could the researchers validly draw a causal inference about the teachers' gender unless teachers of both genders were studied?

posted by Jaltcoh at 9:00 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by Jaltcoh at 9:00 AM on January 28, 2010

*Another thing: if the teachers' gender was not within "the scope of the study," then the summary in the FPP is misleading. It says that the "authors identify [one of] the causal link[s]" as the fact that "an overwhelming majority of these graduates who go on to teach elementary school are female." How could the researchers validly draw a causal inference about the teachers' gender unless teachers of both genders were studied?*

Sorry, my summary of their argument was misleading, as you say. The study only considered female teachers and showed a link between their level of math anxiety and their female students' performance. No effect was seen on their male students, which indicates that the connection was gender-specific. The fact that almost all teachers are female only indicates the scope of the problem and isn't relevant to the logic of the argument.

posted by albrecht at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2010

It's not just math, I don't think. When I was in my 30s, I went back to college to take literature courses just for fun (Yeah, OK.). Many of the students in my classes were majoring in English because they were into sports and hoped to coach--they were not engaged in the material at all, complained about reading anything older than a few years, and worked hard to avoid developing any skills at literary criticism. The idea that it would be those students teaching kids reading and writing skills, and introducing them to literature, made my skin crawl.

posted by not that girl at 9:13 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by not that girl at 9:13 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

*What's so great about being a Mathematician?*

There must be something.

posted by escabeche at 9:15 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

*You obviously didn't read even the abstract where they claim that male students are not as strongly affected. And you certainly didn't look at the paper where they present the evidence.*

I was addressing the general problem of math-averse college students becoming teachers because there are low math-skills requirements for the profession. I'm sorry that didn't come across well, but I'm a boy and I'm no good at words.

posted by rocket88 at 9:20 AM on January 28, 2010

Among my students (who are all low-income African-Americans), many more girls are successful than boys in all subjects - there are many more girls on the honor roll and many more boys failing. The math team I coach has about 20 girls to about 6 boys.

This is connected to a more general trend of women attaining higher levels of education than men on average nationwide.

So while I find this study interesting, a more useful thing for me would be to better understand why my male students are not succeeding.

posted by mai at 9:21 AM on January 28, 2010

This is connected to a more general trend of women attaining higher levels of education than men on average nationwide.

So while I find this study interesting, a more useful thing for me would be to better understand why my male students are not succeeding.

posted by mai at 9:21 AM on January 28, 2010

*What's so great about being a Mathematician?*

There must be something.

There must be something.

I know a few interesting mathematicians, but it's a hard sell to kids. Science can be exciting, even though most science as it's practiced in the field isn't made of explosions and fizzy mixes of chemicals.

posted by filthy light thief at 9:52 AM on January 28, 2010

In response to burnmp3s above: I don't think elementary school teachers necessarily have to have mastered advanced college math. But they do, imho, have to be able to make it comfortably through at least high school Algebra II, which I'm pretty sure most of my classmates had not.

Yes, of course they should love kids to teach them, but if they really love kids they should feel some moral obligation to make sure that all of their young charges do as well as possible in all of the subjects they teach.

Perpetuating and reinforcing a dislike of math or of any other subject does not demonstrate a real love of children! It's irresponsible!

And yes, I'm fully aware that teachers teach all kinds of important things beyond academic subjects, whether they intend to or not.

posted by mareli at 10:04 AM on January 28, 2010

Yes, of course they should love kids to teach them, but if they really love kids they should feel some moral obligation to make sure that all of their young charges do as well as possible in all of the subjects they teach.

Perpetuating and reinforcing a dislike of math or of any other subject does not demonstrate a real love of children! It's irresponsible!

And yes, I'm fully aware that teachers teach all kinds of important things beyond academic subjects, whether they intend to or not.

posted by mareli at 10:04 AM on January 28, 2010

**DU**:

*When I was in college, I was always stunned by the "math anxiety" from the elementary education majors. I was all "you are going to be teaching this stuff to little children, shouldn't you know it?"*

They're not going to be teaching algebra to elementary students. The hardest math you're getting before 6th grade is long division; the skill of education majors in regards to algebra, trig, calculus and so on is generally irrelevant,

posted by spaltavian at 10:24 AM on January 28, 2010

I help a student who is working on math homework that's at the eighth and ninth grade level, and I'm not surprised that teachers might be anxious. The math at this level (systems of equations, the predecessor to matrix algebra) is much harder than what most adults are comfortable with (especially several years removed from the college class where they learned it).

The people comfortable with this kind of math often wind up in engineering or research. It's not just about teacher pay - if you've got the skills, in a good economy, you can get work without too much effort. If you want to become a public school teacher, you might have to spend two years of coursework and intern-level work just to get your certificate. And then, you're the most junior on the hire and fire list, so you're unlikely to get a job in a nearby district.

There's a double-disincentive at work.

If you've got math skills, there are well-paying careers that involve fewer initial hurdles than becoming a public school teacher.

If you are a public school math teacher at middle-school or higher, you will be teaching math that is challenging to most adults.

posted by zippy at 10:28 AM on January 28, 2010

The people comfortable with this kind of math often wind up in engineering or research. It's not just about teacher pay - if you've got the skills, in a good economy, you can get work without too much effort. If you want to become a public school teacher, you might have to spend two years of coursework and intern-level work just to get your certificate. And then, you're the most junior on the hire and fire list, so you're unlikely to get a job in a nearby district.

There's a double-disincentive at work.

If you've got math skills, there are well-paying careers that involve fewer initial hurdles than becoming a public school teacher.

If you are a public school math teacher at middle-school or higher, you will be teaching math that is challenging to most adults.

posted by zippy at 10:28 AM on January 28, 2010

correction to above:

In other words, I meant that teacher pay would have to increase beyond parity with similar non-teaching jobs to make up for the hurdles required to become a teacher, in order to draw people away from other jobs that reward math skills.

posted by zippy at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2010

*if you've got the skills, in a good economy, you can get***non-teaching**work without too much effort.In other words, I meant that teacher pay would have to increase beyond parity with similar non-teaching jobs to make up for the hurdles required to become a teacher, in order to draw people away from other jobs that reward math skills.

posted by zippy at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2010

Best math teachers (one man, one woman) I had was when I was in High School. Better than those I had when in engineering school and when earning an MBA with an emphasis on applied mathematics. (I aced my later courses in math because of my High School teachers.) Good math teachers are rare.

posted by RichardS at 10:59 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by RichardS at 10:59 AM on January 28, 2010

When my daughters were in third(?) grade, we dug out my old "Free To Be You and Me" tape and listened to it. In the process of refuting gender stereotypes, the tape made reference to the idea that boys are better at sports and math than girls are.

My daughters were irate. They had literally never heard such nonsense before and began ranting why it was obviously not true with examples from their classmates.

So, yeah, gender stereotypes are still a huge problem, but maybe it's getting a little better? Also, I thought it was hilarious that their first exposure to these stereotypes was propaganda designed to refute them.

posted by straight at 11:24 AM on January 28, 2010

My daughters were irate. They had literally never heard such nonsense before and began ranting why it was obviously not true with examples from their classmates.

So, yeah, gender stereotypes are still a huge problem, but maybe it's getting a little better? Also, I thought it was hilarious that their first exposure to these stereotypes was propaganda designed to refute them.

posted by straight at 11:24 AM on January 28, 2010

Speaking as a student who was driven to utter distraction by piss-poor teaching in mathematics by teachers of both sexes, I'd like to venture that this study indicates a broad and deep need for radical change in the methodology of mathematical instruction in general. While the numbers that they've compiled are clearly only relevant to elementary-school-aged students, I found the quality of the instruction in mathematics to be woefully lacking at the middle and high schools I attended as well. It's not like these were lousy schools, either. I went to reputable and expensive private schools wherein the teachers were regularly trained and retrained at national and international conferences and workshops. Nevertheless, mathematics courses were taught in a manner that deadened the material and robbed the students of the chance to engage thoughtfully.

posted by MultiplyDrafted at 11:45 AM on January 28, 2010

posted by MultiplyDrafted at 11:45 AM on January 28, 2010

*What's so great about being a Mathematician?*

There must be something.

There must be something.

Wait a sec there buddy, you're going to tell me that they gave a bunch of numbers associated with certain professions to a bunch of math dudes and bingo-bango guess who magically comes out on top?

Ever notice how the procurement office always has the nicest furniture?

posted by Pollomacho at 11:46 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

*I don't think elementary school teachers necessarily have to have mastered advanced college math. But they do, imho, have to be able to make it comfortably through at least high school Algebra II, which I'm pretty sure most of my classmates had not.*

I guess my point is how do you reasonably start requiring that level of math knowledge for elementary school teachers, and would that increase in requirements be worth the cost? If you're hiring for a 2nd grade teaching position, and most of the people in the job market with strong math skills are able to get much higher paying jobs in other fields, it's not exactly easy to just start requiring stronger math skills. And if the highest level of math being taught in that curriculum involves counting money and reading what time it is on an analog clock, it's not immediately obvious that having even high school level math knowledge is an absolute requirement.

I think it's possible that many people who don't enjoy or do well in math could learn to appreciate math more or increase their skills, but in general I think that there should be legitimate career opportunities for people who "don't get math" and that teaching lower grade levels is a reasonable field for them to go into.

posted by burnmp3s at 12:03 PM on January 28, 2010

I admit to only skimming the pdf, but do they ever explain how this anxiety manifests in the actual classroom?

I mean, I'm not a math wiz, but I could sure teach 3rd graders without them catching on.

posted by madajb at 12:30 PM on January 28, 2010

I mean, I'm not a math wiz, but I could sure teach 3rd graders without them catching on.

posted by madajb at 12:30 PM on January 28, 2010

madajb: It manifests in a lot of subtle ways in how the teacher presents the subject. A teacher who is anxious about math will not be curious about it, and so won't encourage students to ask questions or be curious. Someone who is anxious probably doesn't understand how the math they teach actually makes sense. This doesn't just mean they're likely to teach the material in a confusing way to students. The way they present the material will tend to send the message that the math isn't even supposed to make sense, and it just has to be memorized. When it's taught as something "to be gotten through" it tells kids that they should also spend as little of their attention as they can get away with on it.

posted by mathtime! at 1:47 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by mathtime! at 1:47 PM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

*The hardest math you're getting before 6th grade is long division...*

...which is a fucking travesty. I mastered algebra on my own by 7th grade (and I'm no genius), and never really went much further. I often wonder how much more I could have accomplished with some decent teachers and a school that didn't suck.

posted by coolguymichael at 2:11 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really interesting study. There's also research suggesting that anxiety and expectation is part of the reason why black students have lower test scores on the whole. When black students are not competing with white students and are not graded by a white professor, they do much better. Anxiety is commonly cited as the reason. Both that case and this gender one have a self-reinforcing nature: those who expect to do poorly do so, and those who do poorly cause others to expect to do poorly.

Gendered math anxiety probably isn't pancultural, right? It seems that looking at cultures like Japan would shed more light on this phenomenon.

I liked high school math, but I only liked it because I was good at it. It definitely wasn't interesting. If I were bad at it, I would have hated it. Now that I get to play around with model theory and topology and stuff like that, I love math even though I am terrible at it.

posted by painquale at 2:13 PM on January 28, 2010

Gendered math anxiety probably isn't pancultural, right? It seems that looking at cultures like Japan would shed more light on this phenomenon.

I liked high school math, but I only liked it because I was good at it. It definitely wasn't interesting. If I were bad at it, I would have hated it. Now that I get to play around with model theory and topology and stuff like that, I love math even though I am terrible at it.

posted by painquale at 2:13 PM on January 28, 2010

**coolguymichael:**

*Spaltavian: The hardest math you're getting before 6th grade is long division...*

which is a fucking travesty. I mastered algebra on my own by 7th grade (and I'm no genius), and never really went much further. I often wonder how much more I could have accomplished with some decent teachers and a school that didn't suck.

which is a fucking travesty. I mastered algebra on my own by 7th grade (and I'm no genius), and never really went much further. I often wonder how much more I could have accomplished with some decent teachers and a school that didn't suck.

Well, you might want to check my math on this, but I'm almost certain that 7th grade comes after 5th grade. I was taking pre-algerba in 6th and 6th grade, most kids were taking it in 7th and/or 8th. That would have been

*middle school*, not elementary school.

I don't think there's really any need to push algebra into the 4th or 5th grades, other than an introduction to what a variable is. There's plenty of math to learn in elementary school; but it's not algebra, so I'm not sure why people in this thread are expecting people who are going to teach basic operations, fractions, percents, shapes, counting money and telling time to be comfortable with algebra and beyond. It's just not in the job description, and really shouldn't be, even for talented kids.

posted by spaltavian at 2:57 PM on January 28, 2010

*They're not going to be teaching algebra to elementary students. The hardest math you're getting before 6th grade is long division; the skill of education majors in regards to algebra, trig, calculus and so on is generally irrelevant,*

That's true. But they shouldn't be

*afraid*of the idea or feel that they

*can't*do it. I'm never going to make it as an artist, a writer, or an English professor. But I don't feel any kind of

*anxiety*related to reading, writing, or arts and crafts.

How would you feel about an elementary school teacher who confessed to disliking reading books? Sure, she's

*capable*of teaching the alphabet and phonics, but wouldn't you prefer someone who, you know, felt comfortable and happy with reading?

posted by deanc at 3:35 PM on January 28, 2010

*Gendered math anxiety probably isn't pancultural, right?*

math anxiety in general isn't pancultural, let alone gendered. part of the problem is the way numbers are described in english, which makes the earliest math operations such as addition and multiplication, counterintuitive instead of intuitive.

I have read that Chinese and Japanese number names describe relationships (sort of like how the number 80 in french is quatre-vingt, or four-twenties), so when you add and subtract, the numbers already describe their relationships and the calculations are more intuitive.

posted by toodleydoodley at 4:55 PM on January 28, 2010

*How would you feel about an elementary school teacher who confessed to disliking reading books?*

I know a reading specialist who hates reading. I think about this every time I wonder if I can actually do this teaching thing (I'm in an ed. prep. cram in my state)

posted by toodleydoodley at 4:56 PM on January 28, 2010

*spaltavian: Well, you might want to check my math on this, but I'm almost certain that 7th grade comes after 5th grade.*

My comment was that I had MASTERED algebra by 7th grade, genius. I started it on my own pre-5th grade (which comes before 7th – see, I still got it!!) when I got my first computer, and didn’t actually take any algebra classes until 8th grade – yeah, schools in rural Pennsylvania are pretty much shit.

Maybe you missed the “travesty” part, so I’ll explain carefully: If an average 10-year-old kid with a slight interest in the subject can teach himself fundamental math in 2 years, the schools should get off their ass do the same for everyone. But they won’t, because El. Ed. Majors don’t have basic math skills, thus the point of this whole thread.

All caught up now?

posted by coolguymichael at 6:28 PM on January 28, 2010

Woah there, coolguymichael; be cool. Though the mathematical competence of teachers is certainly an issue in some places, the original article was trying to point out a separate one: the influence that teacher attitude has on students.

The question that had been raised about the appropriate elementary teacher math training is an interesting one, though. No, they won't be teaching the kids algebra, but since algebra is a generalization of arithmetic, they should (ideally) be fostering algebraic thinking. One example: when students always solve problems that look like "4 + 8 = __", they get the idea that the "=" means "perform the calculation". Later, they need to unlearn this (which takes time and is often a struggle for students). Instead, elem. teachers could sprinkle in problems like: "5 + 4 = __ + 5". To prepare students to understand functions and inverses further down the line, they can do problems investigating what happens when you apply a process and the reverse process to different numbers. There are lots of these sorts of things.

The trouble is, even for someone competent at algebra (or any other sort of math), it's not always obvious what a good way to present earlier material will be. That's a separate kind of knowledge distinct from competence in the domain, and it should be (one of the) foci of teacher ed. programs. The researcher Liping Ma wrote an interesting book about this sort of thing called 'Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics'

posted by mathtime! at 7:39 PM on January 28, 2010

The question that had been raised about the appropriate elementary teacher math training is an interesting one, though. No, they won't be teaching the kids algebra, but since algebra is a generalization of arithmetic, they should (ideally) be fostering algebraic thinking. One example: when students always solve problems that look like "4 + 8 = __", they get the idea that the "=" means "perform the calculation". Later, they need to unlearn this (which takes time and is often a struggle for students). Instead, elem. teachers could sprinkle in problems like: "5 + 4 = __ + 5". To prepare students to understand functions and inverses further down the line, they can do problems investigating what happens when you apply a process and the reverse process to different numbers. There are lots of these sorts of things.

The trouble is, even for someone competent at algebra (or any other sort of math), it's not always obvious what a good way to present earlier material will be. That's a separate kind of knowledge distinct from competence in the domain, and it should be (one of the) foci of teacher ed. programs. The researcher Liping Ma wrote an interesting book about this sort of thing called 'Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics'

posted by mathtime! at 7:39 PM on January 28, 2010

This is Mrs. filthy light thief and I just had to thank mathtime! for making such a clear and concise statement regarding teacher's curiosity level.

I teach high school math. I did horribly at math in high school (thanks to a combination of moving every year and switching teachers 4 times my junior year). I always thought math was just for memorizing and didn't see all of the beautiful and amazing ways that math works not only together but also in our world. I spend everyday loving to tell kids how interesting math can be.

I will also say that I have a math degree. I am one of 3 teachers in our department with that math degree. There is a change happening in regards to the number of students coming out of university with math degrees emphasizing education, but it's still hard to see high school math teachers brush off math because even they don't understand it.

One funny thing though, I don't think this math "anxiety" is solely female. I student-taught at an elementary school (grades 1-8) and one of the male elementary teachers refused to teach fractions because "his kids weren't going to get it anyway!".

posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 PM on January 28, 2010

I teach high school math. I did horribly at math in high school (thanks to a combination of moving every year and switching teachers 4 times my junior year). I always thought math was just for memorizing and didn't see all of the beautiful and amazing ways that math works not only together but also in our world. I spend everyday loving to tell kids how interesting math can be.

I will also say that I have a math degree. I am one of 3 teachers in our department with that math degree. There is a change happening in regards to the number of students coming out of university with math degrees emphasizing education, but it's still hard to see high school math teachers brush off math because even they don't understand it.

One funny thing though, I don't think this math "anxiety" is solely female. I student-taught at an elementary school (grades 1-8) and one of the male elementary teachers refused to teach fractions because "his kids weren't going to get it anyway!".

posted by filthy light thief at 9:08 PM on January 28, 2010

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