As a science teacher I see many girls who lose their interest in science at a certain age. The age when they start wearing nail polish seems to coincide with the age where they stop raising their hand in science class.
What are some remedies? A drastic one is same sex schools. I totally support the concept of all-girls schools. I’ve seen first hand examples of how much confidence students have at all-girl high schools.
Another remedy is to train teachers to ask questions in a different way. Boys shoot their hands up much quicker than girls. At the Ohio State School of Education we watched funny real life videotapes of how boys and girls respond differently to teacher questions. Our professor noted that boys value competition over being right while girls are about the opposite, careful to only raise their hand if they are sure they are right. In the classroom I have dealt with this by waiting until more hands are raised before I call on someone. I have also had good success with giving students white boards to write their answers on.
Another thing we can do is stop giving traction to this concept of “Oh, I’m just not a math person.” We would never tolerate the equivalent statement about literature: “Oh I’m just not a reading person, I can’t learn to read.” Your parent wouldn’t let you off the hook if you claimed you couldn’t be trained to read. Not being able to read is called “illiteracy” but then not being able to do math is okay. It's considered a benign pathological condition and called “artist’s temperament”. Kids in France, Turkey, and Taiwan are not allowed to give that excuse and they shouldn't be allowed to skate by with it here.
Now here’s the new news, just out this week in the Wall Street Journal**. Girls finally passed boys on the 2004 A-Level tests, when 41% of girls attained the highest grade while 39% of the boys attained the highest grade*.
Apparently English schools are starting to see effects of educational reforms started twenty years ago. Girls’ scores have improved faster than the boys’ scores under the new methods. England has made their math classes more hands on, more math card games and group work, less chalk talk. English teachers are using more white boards to allow shy, slow, reluctant students to give answers without raising their hand. The white board allows students to solve a problem, hold up the board, and only the teacher can see the work, so there is less risk and this puts girls on more of an even footing. Class time is more interactive, another thing that favors girls success. Also, England’s ‘new math’ emphasizes deep analysis of how the problem was solved and deep analysis of the math theories. This too favors how girls’ minds work. The article notes that girls excel at deep analysis for a combination of biological and social reasons. “Girls brains are built for complexity and boys’ brains are built for speed,” notes Leonard Sax, pediatrician and author of “Why Gender Matters”.
*British A-levels are similar to the A.P exams that American seniors take.
**Jeanne Whalen and Sharon Begley, “In England, Girls Are Closing Gap With Boys in Math”, The Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2005.
On a related note, consider sending a young friend to "Rock Camp for Girls". It's an all-girls summer camp where experienced bands like Sleater-Kinney, the Donnas, and the Decemberists mentor young girls in how to form a rock band.
"Our daughter came back with more and more confidence each day. She was in an environment of 8 to 16 year old girls, no boys and only minimal adults, all of them rock band women. Much of what it taught her was that girls are awesome, girls are capable. It was about empowerment." The camp is in Oregon and New York City and has a sliding scale from $500 dollars a week on down.