Girls + Math: Helping ALL students reach their potential

May 8th, 2012

We kick off our Girls + Math series with a post by Maryann Wickett, coauthor of Beyond the Bubble: How to Use Multiple-Choice Tests to Improve Math Instruction. Maryann shares her thoughts on how teachers can guide ALL students to success in mathematics and in their lives as learners.

I have been working on writing this post for more than a month and have written it many times only to immediately delete it. Each of these attempts has been preceded by hours of thinking about performance by gender during the wee hours of the morning, when it is dark and quiet and no one is awake to interrupt my thoughts. I have come to the conclusion that gender is not really the issue—the issue is bigger. In fact, the issue involves ALL children and how to help each one reach her or his greatest potential.

Do boys outperform girls in mathematics? Research is available to support various opinions on this matter. Although it is important that girls do well in mathematics, it is just as important that ALL students perform to the best of their ability. Gender, intelligence, primary language, socioeconomic level, and so forth should not be factors or challenges to a child’s opportunity to reach her or his potential in mathematics or any other subject area.

What is success in mathematics? I define success as moving forward in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding and the ability to apply it to new learning and problem solving at a speed that allows for deep understanding but doesn’t stagnate the learner. Rather, the learner remains engaged, excited, and interested.

What are the characteristics of successful learners? In my experience as a practicing public elementary school teacher in grades pre-K–6, successful learners do the following:

  • Persist
  • Possess self-confidence
  • Are open to new learning and ideas
  • Work to make sense of situations and their learning
  • Make connections
  • Reflect on solutions to be sure they make sense, and revise when they don’t
  • Ask questions and put forth ideas and hypotheses
  • Listen to others and discuss ideas and solutions
  • Apply what they know to solve new problems
  • Communicate their ideas through speaking and writing
  • Use a variety of tools including paper and pencil, manipulatives, calculators, charts, graphs, computers, etc.
  • Search for and make use of patterns and structure

Although successful students display a common set of learning attributes (as listed), these students come in all varieties: gifted, special education, English only, English language learners, rich, poor, Hispanic, black, white, Native American, Asian, female, and male. Success in my third-grade classroom is not limited to boys or any other particular group.

How then do we create classrooms where all students perform to the best of their ability? There seem to be two key areas where we, as classroom teachers, can make a difference. These areas are: (1) our beliefs about our students and their abilities, along with our role in helping them to achieve success, and (2) the opportunities we provide.

  • Beliefs: It is imperative that we hold high expectations for our students as well as ourselves. When people truly believe they can do something, they will do it. The same is true when it comes to learning mathematics. I believe that all of my third-grade students can understand the concept of multiplication, and it is my job to find ways to make this happen for them. It is also my job to convince them that they are capable of understanding. As students rise to meet my expectation for understanding multiplication, they develop self-confidence, which enhances their belief that they can achieve. When students believe they are capable, know that I believe they are capable, and have experience with success, they will persevere. They will make sense of their learning and apply it to new problems and situations, and in new ways. Asking ALL children to share and discuss ideas, in writing and aloud, values their thinking and further strengthens an “I can” attitude.

There are cultural values that we have to watch out for that can be confusing to students. For example, when adults make lighthearted comments such as, “I was never good in math,” we need to be prepared to respond. Adults usually do not make such comments about their abilities in reading, so why is it okay to make such confessions about math? It conveys the message that it’s acceptable not to do well in math.

  • Opportunities: Because each student is unique, we must provide learning experiences with multiple access points and ways to extend learning. Learning opportunities need to accommodate different learning styles, interests, and skill levels. Students must have opportunities to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways. Opportunity for students to reflect on their learning and revise when appropriate is essential. They need opportunities to make connections and explore ideas. Students need many different opportunities to engage with and explore a single concept. Mistakes are not failures; they are golden opportunities to learn. We should all be expected to learn from our mistakes.

To sum up, not only do we need girls to do well in mathematics, we need ALL students to reach their full potential.

Entry Filed under: math

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