Little Girls, Math Anxiety, and Stereotypes

A fascinating recent study claims that if a female elementary teacher is anxious about math, chances are that her female students’ performance would suffer. Note that it doesn’t matter if she’s actually good or bad at math—it’s all about anxiety!

This is interesting not only because 90% of US elementary math teachers are women, but because it contradicts our beliefs that it’s only skill that matters—not attitude. The study reveals that you can know math, and yet if you’re anxious you’re impairing your students.

I encourage everyone to read “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement”* (you can find it here – it’s just 4 pages long).

math anxiety graphIn addition to the findings and to the very creative way the researchers measure kids’ “gender ability beliefs”, Figure 2 of the study really struck me. I believe that it contains powerful practical advice for parents and teachers alike.

On this graph there are four bars:

  • Average results for boys with strong gender stereotype beliefs
  • Average results for boys with weak gender stereotype beliefs
  • Average result for girls with strong gender stereotype beliefs
  • Average result for girls with weak gender stereotype beliefs

“Gender stereotype beliefs” is the degree to which a child believes that “boys are good at math, girls are good at reading”.

The graph shows that boys who believe this stereotype score higher than boys who don’t; and girls who believe the stereotype score significantly lower than girls who don’t! Not only is the difference significant for the observer, it is also “statistically significant”—or, put in plain English, it’s not just a pure random coincidence, it’s a scientific truth.

So what’s the practical advice for parents and teachers? To me it is that we need to be extremely careful what we tell our children and what stereotypes we create in their young minds. Because, as the study scientifically proves, they may all turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

* The study was conducted by Sian L. Beilock, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, and Susan C. Levine; and published by the Department of Psychology and Committee on Education, University of Chicago, IL 60607

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