Promoting Equity in Mathematics Classrooms


Melodee M. Lackey

To keep up with the demand for more mathematicians and scientists, society is going to have to do a better job of encouraging females and minorities to enter the fields. From the articles that I have read, it seems that females are taking more math courses in high school, but then choose not to enter a math related field in college. Therefore it is our role as teachers to create environments that make math and science exciting and useful. After a discussion with a colleague back in the spring, I realized that maybe I have a problem with equity in my classroom. I do find myself giving more attention to my male students than my female students. When I direct a question to the entire class, it is almost always a male who answers. In an article by Wendy Schwartz and Katherine Hanson, two studies are mentioned that involve classroom discussions. A study done by Redpath and Claire found that in children between the ages of 9 and 11, boys took three times as many turns speaking. Another study of college age students by Krupnick found that men spoke up to 12 times longer than women. I don't think my males are learning more than my females because the females' grades are just as good or even better than my male students. The females are just not as vocal as the males when it comes to classroom discussions. Why is this?

Based on my observations as a teacher and my experience as a high school student, I believe the biggest reason females don't speak up is that it is not "cool" to be smart. Girls who demonstrate their intelligence and are interested in learning seem not to receive as much attention from the opposite sex, socially.

". . . girls should not reveal their intelligence lest it compromise their sexual desirability . . .". (Schwartz and Hanson)

Girls are socialized at an early age to focus on their bodies and not on their achievement. I personally do not see math related fields as a man's world, but it is possible that my female students perceive it this way. I need to do a better job of introducing them to women who have successful math careers. Also, parents may not encourage their daughters to pursue advanced mathematics. The community in which I teach is not really rural, but it does contain traditional families that have been in the community since it was very rural. These parents do not see the need for their children to pursue higher mathematics.

Another reason females may not be willing to participate in discussions is a conflict between learning styles and the teaching method being used. Traditional teaching methods involving lecture and individual seat work are believed to foster the learning styles of males. According to Schwartz and Hanson, males learn through "argument and individual activities". Females on the other hand learn better through a "conversational style that fosters group consensus and builds ideas on top of each other". (Schwartz and Hanson) The female learning style seems to parallel what the NCTM Standards suggests as an ideal teaching method. The "modern" teaching methods involving student discovery and cooperative learning should enhance female understanding of mathematics. I especially believe that group work helps because I have had numerous students, mostly female, tell me that it helps them to understand if they are allowed to "talk it out" as they say with their classmates. I don't totally agree with what Schwartz and Hanson say about the learning style of males. Traditionally males may have learned better through individualism, but I believe that males learn just as much through group work, etc. as they do through lecture; however, my male students are more willing to work alone than my female students. My female students are always the first one to ask if they can work with a partner or group. A question comes to my mind: What will happen to these females when they enter college and take math courses? From my experience with college math classes, they were all straight lecture classes. Some of them I didn't find very exciting. I know some of the professors in smaller colleges are using nontraditional teaching methods, but the larger universities are still using lecture method. I'm sure there are students who are turned away from mathematics their freshman year in college because of this conflict. Male and female learning styles may be developed at an early age by the types of toys they are given to play with. Boys usually play with more action toys that involve mathematical concepts such as velocity, angles, and three-dimensional configurations. Traditionally females are not introduced to these concepts until school. (Schwartz and Hanson) Today I see more female children playing with these types of toys. Dolls are not the choice of toys for all female children.

What can we do to encourage more females in the fields of math and science? I believe the most important change than needs to take place before other things can change is the attitude of parents, teachers, and the students. Parents need to do a better job of encouraging their daughters to succeed in math.(Schwartz and Hanson) Instead of making excuses for them such as "I wasn't good in math, so she probably won't be either", they need to seek out ways to help their daughter. Schools may need to develop ways of educating the parents about the importance of mathematics. Math departments could mail out fliers to the parents of female students discussing how important it is for their child to take more math. Teachers' attitudes in the classroom have to change, also. They need to believe that females are just as capable of learning mathematics as males. Teachers need to make sure females "get their fair share of time, attention, leadership, and opportunities". They can do this by periodically checking the following things: (Campbell)

1. they pay equal attention to girls and boys

2. equal number of girls lead groups

3. all students do hands-on activities

4. girls and boys are aware of the importance of math and science in future career decisions

5. girls feel comfortable asking questions and are given supportive answers

6. girls don't defer to boys and boys don't expect them to

I feel that my colleagues believe that males and females can learn the same things, but, like myself, they may unconsciously do the things listed above.

Along with attitude changes, major changes in teaching methods and curriculum need to be made. (Schwartz and Hanson) "Math and science need to become more hands-on."(Campbell) Cooperative learning strategies that promote equality between males and females need to be used. Lessons need to teach students to think and analyze to arrive at solutions rather than on the answer itself. Use real-world applications to develop concepts so that the students see the purpose for the math. A teacher needs to use a variety of applications so that everyone can relate to something, but try not to be so stereotypical. (Schwartz and Hanson) Teachers need bring in successful mathematicians and scientists, both male and female, so that the students can get a feel of what they are really like. Mathematicians and scientists are sometimes characterized as "nerds", "social outcasts," or "loners." Female students need to spend time with female mathematicians so that they can realize than scientists and engineers are not nerds and they can have a social life. Having a social life and being accepted are very important to teenage girls, so if they can see that being good in math is acceptable, then maybe they will pursue higher mathematics. In order to make this change in teaching methods, schools are going to have to be willing to supply staff-development courses to train veteran teachers. These staff-developments need to give teachers practice with hands-on activities, expose gender and race issues in the classroom, and motivate teachers to want to change. (Campbell)

Another way to encourage females to enter mathematics is to conduct out-of-school programs that allow them to interact with females only. These types of programs have the following characteristics according to Patricia Campbell:

1. They are considered by the girls to be not like school.

2. They are fun.

3. They include a lot of hands-on activities, projects, and opportunities.

4. They are much less concerned with increasing cognitive knowledge than with helping girls do new things.

5. They are relaxed, with little, or no, emphasis on individual competition.

6. They provide opportunities for girls to speak informally with women in math and science careers and to learn about their personal and professional lives.

7. They not only provide time for questions, but the staff anxious to answer those questions, so that the girls know someone is there who will keep working with them until they can say "I've got it!"

8. They include evaluation of what's working and what's not and use the results for program improvement. (Campbell)

Campbell suggests that schools need to intervene for the first time while the students are in the eighth grade. During this year the majority of the students will be deciding whether or not to take algebra in the ninth grade. Students involved in the special programs can see that algebra can be fun and will want to take it. Campbell suggests to intervene again while the students are in the tenth grade. Her reasoning is that most students have completed the requirements for graduation and need encouragement to go on and take advanced math courses. I would say that maybe this needs to be done in the eleventh grade because students now have to have three years of math to graduate. Also, this is a time when they are beginning to make decisions concerning what to do after high school. Campbell offers several suggestions on how to get students to be involved in the programs.

The suggestions depend on when the programs are going to be offered. If a summer program is planned, it is suggested to schedule it near the end of June or in August so not to conflict with summer jobs. An alternative to weekly sessions is to have residential programs. Campbell says that this type is better attended than any other. I think this would be great for eighth graders. This age group loves camps, so why not have a math camp.

If the program is to be conducted during the school year, it is best that it be in conjunction with a class or allow the students to receive extra credit. It is a good idea to have periodic sessions with participants after a program has been completed. This would be for support and follow-ups. Administrators can get feedback from the students to see what is and what is not working. (Campbell)

These ideas would make for a useful staff-development day. At my school, I believe that my colleagues need to be aware of the possibility of discrimination against females. I think we need to be careful that reverse discrimination does not occur. The changes suggested in this paper are needed, but they may not work for all students. A teacher needs to be aware of all students equally! There is discussion that we are concentrating on the wrong group of people. An excerpt from an editorial by Diane Ravich discussed that the number of graduate degrees obtained by females has jumped significantly over the past twenty-five years and seems to be rising. She suggests that we concentrate on gender differences within minority groups. It seems that minority men are choosing not to enter college.(Ravich via Davis) I believe that she does have a point, but white females still need our attention. As this school year begins in a couple of weeks, I will definitely be more aware of my females. I'm going to do a better job of controlling the classroom discussions in order to get more females to participate. I feel like I give plenty of time for group discussions, and we do hands-on activities periodically. I've just got to encourage them to be more vocal.

Resources: (These articles all came from Netscape)

Campbell, Patricia. (1992) Encouraging Girls in Math and Science: Working in and out of School to Encourage Girls in Math and Science. WEEA Publishing Center: Newton, MA. (Pamphlet)

Campbell, Patricia. (1992). Encouraging Girls in Math and Science: Designing Effective Programs for Girls in Math, Science, and Engineering. .WEEA Publishing Center: Newton, MA. (Pamphlet)

Davis, Don. (1994) Netscape page:

Hanson, Katherine and Schwartz, Wendy. 1992. Equal Mathematics Education for Female Students. Center for Equity and Cultural Diversity at Education Development Center: Newton, MA. (Digest from ERIC)

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