Girls need confidence to succeed at maths

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Teachers tend to assume that girls lack confidence in maths, regardless of girls' own feelings on the subject, writes Adi Bloom.

Yvette Solomon, of Lancaster University, spoke to A-level students and teachers at one school to determine how they perceived the role of girls in the maths classroom.

The teachers noted a strong link between confidence and gender. One claimed that girls needed quiet coaxing and encouragement, while boys believed in their own ability.

"Lads, more often than not, are quite willing to have a bash," he said. "Whereas girls are slightly more insecure in terms of 'Am I doing this right?'"

Another teacher pointed out that boys were more likely to blame an external factor the teacher or the question if they were unable to complete a piece of work. Girls, by contrast, blamed themselves.

When girls did succeed, the teachers believed it was through effort and work, while boys seemed to do well without really trying.

But this attention to detail could also work against girls. One teacher said: "Girls... spend too long making sure it's all written down perfectly... Lads would rather rush through and say, 'We want to get on to that other cool stuff'. And it may be harder to stretch the girls."

Dr Solomon believes that teachers excuse boys' sloppiness, while interpreting girls' care as failure.

But her interviews with sixth-form girls did not reveal an inherent lack of self-belief. One teenager said she had deliberately chosen to study maths A level because she believed it was a hard subject.

"I wanted to work hard, just to be good at it, just to say I've got an A-level in maths," she said. "That will be something people will be really impressed with."

Her classmate, on the other hand, suggested that doing well in maths was simply a question of putting in the work. "None of it is particularly hard," she said. "I've always found maths a lot less stressful than any of the other subjects, because it doesn't require a lot of thought."

Dr Solomon suggests that stereotypes still persist in maths lessons. "Some learners take up the positions they are offered and some do not," she said. "What determines particular outcomes for particular students may depend on their personal histories-in-progress."

* y.solomon@lancaster.ac.uk

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