There’s More to Learning Math than Mathematical Aptitude

Ever since I founded Girls’ Angle, I’ve had frequent discussions about gender segregated math education. Here’s an argument I often hear from those opposed:

“I believe girls and boys are equally capable at doing mathematics, and, therefore, they should not be put in separate math classes.” – some opposed to Girls’ Angle.

I would like to directly address this argument here.

If the only thing that affected learning was one’s mental aptitude for the topic being taught, then I think these critics have a valid point. I agree, and my experience shows, that girls and boys are equally capable at doing mathematics. And, if that is the only thing that matters with respect to math education, then, yes, girls and boys are effectively equal and there would be no need or justification for gender segregated math education.

However, one’s aptitude for mathematics is not the only thing that matters when it comes to learning how to do math. Those who insist that it is wrong to separate boys and girls in math class because boys and girls are equally capable at doing mathematics are missing one or both of two points. First, other factors besides one’s aptitude for a subject influence how one would best learn the subject, and, second, there are a myriad of such factors that affect our ability to learn math.

To establish the first point, I’d like to describe a simple analogy which I hope will make clear that additional factors can greatly influence the decision about whether or not to segregate along gender lines: Showering. I don’t think anybody will disagree that boys and girls are equally capable at taking a shower with standard shower equipment. Yet, at the same time, I don’t think that there will be many people who genuinely oppose gender segregated public shower facilities. Nor would there be many earnest voices calling for girls and boys to “learn to shower together.”

Thus, showering represents a task that boys and girls are equally capable at, and yet, people normally draw an opposite conclusion: that public shower facilities should be separated by gender.

Why the different conclusion?

It is because there are other factors that play into the decision beyond the mere question of whether boys and girls are equally capable or not. If all that mattered was one’s capacity for taking a shower, then there wouldn’t be any need or justification for gender segregated showers. In fact, co-ed showers would simplify the design of athletic facilities considerably. But, ability is not all that matters.

The same is true for math education. As all mathematicians know, improving at mathematics requires much more than mathematical aptitude. How much time does one spend thinking about math? How much can one tolerate one’s own failure? How much can one persevere? How aggressive is one in arguing one’s own ideas? How much does one listen thoughtfully to the ideas of others? How silent or talkative does one tend to be in a classroom setting? How willing is one to make an error in public? How much is one motivated by competition? How much is one motivated by collaboration? How important does one think it is to be faster or better than another? How much does one crave honors?

I believe that when all the factors are taken into account, gender segregated math educational programs are fully justified. Starting way before ninth grade, behavioral differences tend to leave girls shortchanged in co-educational math classes. In subtle ways, the girls tend not to receive as much of certain ingredients that are crucial for improving at mathematics. This causes girls to start falling behind for reasons that are entirely unrelated to their mathematical aptitude. Eventually, these differences manifest themselves in the great disparity in the representation of men and women seen at the highest levels of the mathematics profession.

Now, these differences are statistical. Humans exhibit tremendous natural variation and there certainly are girls who thrive in co-educational math classes and there certainly are outstanding women in mathematics who have been educated in co-educational environments. Accordingly, Girls’ Angle does not assert that all girls should learn math in an all-girl environment. However, we believe that the disparity in gender representation in the mathematics profession suggests that many girls would benefit from an all-girl math class, and that is what Girls’ Angle provides.


About girlsangle

We're a math club for girls.
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2 Responses to There’s More to Learning Math than Mathematical Aptitude

  1. John says:

    Gender segragated math classes, this is hogwash!! I don’t see how this author can make the comparison to boys and girls needs for seprate showers and seprate class rooms. The author is right, both boys and girs are completly capable of taking showers and learning math but showers are seperated for obvious reasons.

    • girlsangle says:

      Hi John,
      I’m not directly comparing showers with learning math. The reason I brought up the showers is because some people I have met seem to think that from the statement that girls and boys are equally capable at doing math, it logically follows that there should not be all-girl math classes. I wanted to show that the conclusion does not logically follow when the totality of relevant considerations are accounted for by first giving an example of a situation where the analogous hypothesis is satisfied, but the analogous conclusion is not. Providing a clear example (showering) serves to show that other factors can play into decisions about segregating along gender lines. After establishing this, I then claim that there exist such factors when it comes to learning mathematics, though they may be quite different from the ones that lead to the conclusion that there should be gender segregated showers.

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