Female Teachers Transfer their Math Anxiety to Girls

January 29, 2010

math anxietySome people are just not math people. But according to a new study by the University of Chicago, one person’s math anxiety can be transferred to another.

Think back to elementary school. Did you have a female teacher who said to you that boys were better at math than girls? Professors even admit to this. Perhaps it’s true–based on statistics–but will it always be true?

The study was conducted for a year with 17 teachers from the first and second grades and 52 boys and 65 girls were their students.

“Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which in turn, affects girls’ math achievement,” said Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology and the Committee on Education at the University of Chicago, lead author of a paper, “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement,” published in the January 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Beilock is also an expert on anxiety and stress as they relate to learning and performance.

The National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education points out that 90 percent of elementary school teachers are female and that they are able to get their teaching certificates with very little math preparation.

The authors suggest that elementary teacher preparation programs could be strengthened by requiring more mathematics preparation for future teachers as well as by addressing issues of math attitudes and anxiety in these teachers.

“I’m not a fan of math because I never had an instructor who took the time to teach me until I actually got it,” said Nia, a 27-year-old, recent college undergraduate in New York City. “It was hard for me to work on formulas, like in algebra, because it’s too many steps involved.”

James Hall, a 39 year old sophomore in college, echoes the status quo, but he does believe that girls and women can overcome what he feels is a myth, that boys are better at math than girls. “Math is like anything else in life. It takes practice to become good at it. And unlike other things, it never changes. Once learned, it is learned forever,” said Hall. “I have always liked math, but have not always been proficient at doing it. There is a saying, ‘some of us are born with what others have to try and work at.’

“Individually, some of us may have an inclination to numbers rather than words, but all can learn. Saying that, I do not think that boys are better at math than girls,” Hall said. “What I think is that boys are provided more opportunities to challenges than girls. Boys, at an early age, are taught to overcome difficulty in play (sports) and socially. Girls are taught to wait and be nice and to recede.”

Hall illustrated his point to his daughter when she was having problems with math, and he studied with her for a year. Her FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) score rose. He stated that before that, he convinced her that girls could be good at math too. He then told her about women that he knew who were good at it.

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