I like science and, most of all, I love mathematics. From exploring probability theory as a graduate student, to my doctoral studies focusing on the mathematics achievement of immigrant students, I’ve always come back to maths.
But I know everyone does not think the way I do. I recognise that, for some, maths can be a subject that causes stress, anxiety, even hatred.
How widespread is the dislike of maths?
Quick read: Eddie Woo on the beauty of maths
Quick listen: How to give students a deeper understanding of maths
Want more articles like this? Join our Tes Teaching and Learning Facebook group
What the data says
This happens to be a topic in which I am very well-versed, thanks to my role helping to run the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).
Since 1995, IEA has used Timss not just to measure learning outcomes, but to collect a wide spectrum of contextual information about mathematics and science teaching. This includes insights into students' backgrounds, including their attitudes to the subjects, but also how prepared their teachers feel, and how well-resourced their headteachers deem their schools to be.
Timss aims to capture the widest possible view of the factors that are related to learning.
So what is going wrong for maths? How come 81 per cent of 10-year-old students like learning maths, but, just four years later, in grade 8 (equivalent to Year 9), only 61 per cent of them feel the same way?
A lack of confidence in maths
Two decades of Timss data reveals a strong relationship between students’ confidence in a subject and their performance, and indicates that lack of confidence may put a student off pursuing subjects to a higher level.
Worryingly, our latest results from Timss 2015 also showed that confidence in maths drops as a student gets older, with 32 per cent of grade 4 (10-year-old) students reporting feeling very confident in maths, compared with just 14 per cent of grade 8 students (14-year-olds).
A persistent gender issue...
Meanwhile, in 2017, the UNESCO report Cracking the Code: Girls and Women’s Education in Stem drew on many studies, including ones by IEA, and not only did it demonstrate the underrepresentation of girls in Stem courses within higher education, it also shed light on the harm caused by oft-repeated stereotypes about maths being for boys.
Even if girls don’t personally believe that maths and science are “just for boys”, knowing that people in their immediate environment hold such beliefs can undermine their confidence and, ultimately, their performance.
What many people may not be surprised by is that the stereotype is not only harmful, it’s not even true. When looking at the international average of the Timss maths results, girls perform equally well in grade 4 (Year 5), and girls actually perform better than boys in grade 8.
There are, however, large differences in the "gender gap" between countries, with girls outperforming boys in most of the Middle Eastern countries taking part in our study.
For example, girls in Saudi Arabia scored on average 43 points higher than their male peers; the equivalent of around a whole school year of teaching.
On the other extreme, Italian boys outperform girls by about 20 points (around a half year of schooling).
This suggests cultural factors play a big role in influencing how well students perform.
… that extends to teaching
So far, I’ve only mentioned pupils, but if we are looking at the context around student performance, then there is another group we also need to take into account: teachers.
Using the Timss teacher questionnaire, I looked in more detail at not only the differences in achievement of students taught by male and female teachers, but also how confident those teachers are in their own abilities to teach mathematics.
In most countries, students’ achievement in Timss was not linked to the gender of their teacher. In the few countries where there was a significant link, generally the students with a female teacher achieved better results.
In contrast, it was striking (though perhaps not surprising) to find that, in the majority of countries taking part in the study, male teachers showed greater self-confidence in teaching mathematics. It seems that harmful stereotypes linger well beyond childhood.
For me, the upshot of this research is that it is important that we support and encourage female teachers to be more comfortable, showing their self-confidence in their subject. Let’s shout about this data that suggests female teachers can get the best results with their students and that girls outperform boys in this subject. Let’s tear down those stereotypes and expose them for the damaging lies they are.
Maths is a beautiful subject and one that all can excel in and enjoy. Female pupils and teachers have had a barrier thrown up that damages confidence and prevents more women from opting to become maths professionals. Let’s break it down with the hard facts.
Dr Dirk Hastedt is executive director at IEA, an international cooperative of national research institutions, government research agencies, scholars and analysts working to evaluate, understand and improve education worldwide