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Math Motives August 28, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Teaching.

Since the influential 1983 study A Nation at Risk, we have been debating the question of how to improve education in the U.S. The debate has focused on improving teacher competence through new teaching methods, reorganizing schools as in the charter school movement, or using high stakes testing to punish teachers for their student’s low scores.

The motivations of students and cultural expectations regarding the purpose and importance of education are usually ignored in this debate, as if we could just take them for granted.

On a related topic, there is a debate raging within the sciences and engineering regarding the lack of women in these fields. Explanations range from lack of encouragement, lack of interest, to differences in brain structure between men and women.

This study conducted in Iceland suggests that, for both issues, the role of motivation is primary. The study found that girls perform vastly better than boys in math in the primary grades and high school because they are more highly motivated. However, this difference disappears in college and the work force because girls lose their motivation.

It is difficult to draw conclusions from one very limited study, but it suggests that the U.S. debate about improving schools, since it ignores motivation and cultural expectations, is looking for improvement in all the wrong places.



1. Huan - September 1, 2007

I personally have a few friends that are still struggling in their last years of high school, and i still remember what it was like there. From my point of view it seems that the study conducted in iceland is rather accurate. To me the education system definitely doesn’t focus enough on evoking the passion and interest of students in the subjects they study. Instead, throughout high school the focus is put on superior academic achievement in order to attend superior colleges. Theres little freedom for the students to learn about the subjects of their interest, causing the idea of school to become a mere chore.

2. Michael Mussachia - September 2, 2007

But why are college-aged girls losing motivation for math more than boys? Hormones and thoughts of babies? Gender-biased academic expectations? Agressive competition from boys in math and engineering classes? I wonder if Nina has some ideas on this?

3. Huan - September 2, 2007

Ah i completely missed that point…that IS pretty interesting..
Perhaps it also lies in the strong focus on pure academic motivation of high school as opposed to the general self-motivation of colleges. Having just graduated from high school not long ago i didn’t notice much difference in motivation between the sexes there..
I think any gender based academic expectations are perhaps already outdated on a larger scale..
Heh maybe i’ll find out in woman’s psychology this semester.

4. Thea - September 3, 2007

Well, I’m female and math was actually my best subject in high school. The two female math teachers that I had between jr. high and high school both took me aside and told me that I had an aptitude for math while the male teachers that I had blew off my questions and ideas and were consistently unavailable to me during class if not flat out derisive and irritated. What ultimately turned me off of math, however, was not the oaf teachers, “aggressive male peers” or the actual work.

In my case and in my observation, members of groups that are marginalized in our society tend to be drawn to subjects in which they feel that they can create social change. Being the token (insert marginalized group) member of a subject like math can’t really satisfy that desire in many people. I think that’s why we see a disproportionate amount of anglo males in math and science and a disproportionate amount of women and people of color in social sciences. The kind of person that insinuates that there is something about the female brain that can’t “do math” probably doesn’t have much experience with the female brain, if you know what I’m saying.

Essentially though, I think that one of the biggest issues facing education today is the lack of diverse teaching staff. Some multicultural training among the teaching staff wouldn’t hurt, if it’s absolutely impossible for the school to add teachers of color to the payroll. A homogenous teaching staff unwittingly de-motivates students as they sit there at the podium with baffled looks on their faces scoffing at or dismissing the views of their students from other cultures. It’s enough to demotivate many students from even attending school because really, who really wants to actually PAY to be insulted every day or PAY someone to teach you the same cultural rhetoric that you could get from tv?

But, the problem is much larger than a lack of quality, culturally-saavy teachers. There is also the little matter of the motivation of those who are pushing for greater academic achievement in our country. Since their motivation is apparently ego or, more precisely, our country’s ego, they don’t have interest in the quality of our education, but instead they are just trying to push out more people with degrees. When a BA or a PhD is essential to get a low or medium level paycheck, you’re going to have students who are not actually interested in academia getting degrees just to get the job that they want. That leads to classrooms that contain cheaters, nappers and students who sigh loudly and roll their eyes at lengthy, but enlightening tangents that the professors make. What teacher can work with that?

I’d really like to hear what others have to say on this topic, though. I hope more people contribute.

5. Jordan - September 4, 2007

I appreciate Thea’s point regarding how frustrating it can be to be tokenized in the classroom. I have noticed through my own experience, as well as observing others, that being the only member of a marginalized group often results in feeling as though one is “under the microscope.” It can also result in the student being forced into a “teaching” role in order to educate other students (or professors!) in the class about one’s identity or life experiences.

Thinking about tokenisim, as well as the shocking underrepresentation of faculty of color at colleges and universities, seems to tie in nicely with the implications of the study conducted in Iceland. Perhaps we should focus less on scrutinizing students based solely on their test scores and instead start evaluating how circumstances within the classroom (such as the tokenism of underrepresented students and the need for more professors of color) contribute to motivating some students to pursue certain diciplines while motivating others to avoid them.

6. Alexandra Mardian - October 21, 2007

I think debating on ways to improve teaching methods is vital for students as well as teachers. As our education keeps evolving it will continue to keep changing. Finding ways to improve methods for teachers should always be a continuous process. I think high stakes testing is important for the teacher because it allows for them to see what they need to improve on. Instead of the teacher getting punished I think they need to see what they need to focus more on. If the high stakes testing keeps coming back similar to how it was before then teachers should be forced or encouraged to take courses on how to educate students more efficiently and effectively.
Something I learned while growing up is how fortunate we are to have an education. For most of us I think we hear about these unfortuante places but we don’t get enough of why or how lucky we are to earn such a great education. If we were to participate as a class and study less fortunate cultures and perhaps even write to these children, I think it would overall improve our motivation.
The study in Iceland seemed as though young girls may have been motivated more than boys because they wanted to escape the tradition of not being looked at as equals. Their motivation expressed that they can do just as well as men. The schools may have acknowledged this profound talent that these girls proved to demonstrate but may have focused less on their overall education and most importantly, their future.
What I have noticed over the years is that women in general have proved to show that they are just as competent as men. When women prove that they are more competent than men in certain areas, we tend to focus on that specific “achievement”. It seems as though the teachers may have focused more of their attention on boys because they weren’t ranking as high as the girls. In result, the girls continued their education but with less focus from their teachers. Something also important to take into account is other variables that could have had an influence on the performance of the students such as the gender of the teachers. As I read in another blog entry, I also had a female math teacher. I recieved the math award for my class. In fact, all awards handed out in the class were given to female students. It may have been a coincidence or it could have been the bias opinion of the teacher. These are all factors that need to also be looked upon when we as a society try to figure out how best to not only educate students but motivate them as well.

7. Joseph - December 6, 2007

My personal beliefs on the matter depend on each and every individual. From personal experience I greatly enjoyed elementary school because I had teachers from first and second grade who would always tell me how intelligent I was and how quickly I finished my work. This caused me to want to keep doing even better in my academics, be the good student, and get the good grades. But as I look back I notice that I also had the potential to easily not pay attention or care at such a young age, what made the difference for me was impressing my teachers and parents. It is no coincidence that once I attended middle school my grades greatly dropped, going to a private catholic school were I knew no one and was going threw hormonal changes and did not feel acceptance from my teachers the way I did in middle school. This caused me to have low self esteem and my grades reflected my emotions. I can relate to the study done in Iceland on girls and math education, they may not be as motivated for multiple reasons such as no one encouraging them to attend or do well, having to deal with puberty, and not feeling as confident as they did when they were younger. Children are very vulnerable, it only takes a good teacher, parent, adult to make a proper difference in their life allowing for interest and encouragement.

8. griffithinsider - April 22, 2011

Am writing a thesis on Public Trust in WikiLeaks, the Media and the Government and need to know what your opinions are. The online survey is multiple choice and will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Please follow the link: http://www.kwiksurveys.com/?s=ILLLML_9669e09d. Would be great if you would encourage others to do the survey also.

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