“I’m bad at math.” “I’m not a math person.”
Educators say you should swallow those words, pronto. Especially if you have children.
“It starts that early, thinking you’re bad at something,” said Hayley Kleyman, founder and director of Jackson Hole Tutoring.
In its third year Jackson Hole Tutoring’s summer math program for girls was in full swing this month. And despite many participants who said math isn’t their favorite class in school, the smiles, shouts and giggles coming from around the room as they competed in a probability card game for candy seemed to suggest otherwise. Because research shows that girls tend to have less confidence about math than their male counterparts, it’s important to make the subject less intimidating.
“We think it’s so important to be able to give these girls a safe space, a place for them to build their confidence, to build their resilience, to be able to be themselves, to teach them how to believe in themselves,” Kleyman said. “Girls learn differently, and I think that’s developing a lot in those elementary years.
“By giving this inclusive environment, they’re able to build these new relationships and build their inner confidence.”
Kleyman observed that her campers tend to be one of two types.
“It’s either, ‘My daughter is terrible at math, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she’s insecure and she’s uncomfortable with the whole subject’ and so this is a way for her to be around other girls, without male presence and pressure, to open up and ask questions and have fun,” she said. “Or we see a lot of, ‘My daughter loves math, this is great, she’s going to take off, she’s going to learn new things.’”
The mid-August timing couldn’t be better. Research suggests that students continue challenging their brains during the summer in order to avoid “summer slide” or summer learning loss.
“I feel like it’s preparing me to be comfortable for sixth grade,” 11-year-old Lauren Carr said. “We’re reviewing stuff so I’m ready and you already know some things going in.”
She ticked off concepts she learned last year and wanted to refresh: multiplication, fractions, decimals and the math behind solar energy.
“We want to be able to challenge girls in a different way and build their critical thinking skills and their problem solving skills that come with it being a math camp,” Kleyman said. “Ultimately, I think it comes down to building their confidence. That’s a really big piece of it.”
Speaking in generalizations, Kleyman said she notices a difference helping boys and girls with their math homework.
“The difference between sitting down with a boy or a girl who isn’t feeling confident with math is huge, especially when you get to older grades,” she said.
Girls need more coaxing, in Kleyman’s experience.
“I have to do a lot more coaching and confidence building leading up to it,” she said. “I’m teaching them to change their inner dialogue. So many sit down and say, ‘I’m bad at this, I’m bad at math, I don’t get this, I’ve never understood this before.’ I say back, ‘You’re doing great, but you’re setting yourself up for failure.’”
Numerous studies that compare gender differences in math have mostly found that girls have lower self-assurance about the subject than boys, even when their mathematical achievement is similar to or better than theirs. That doesn’t always shape results, but it can.
Jill Armijo taught math at Jackson Hole Middle School for 18 years before becoming an instructional coach for Teton County School District No. 1. As someone who works with ‘not there yet’ kids and teachers looking to improve their skills, she’s familiar with what she called “math trauma” starting at a young age and convincing students, both boys and girls, that the subject isn’t for them due to low levels of self-confidence.
“I wish I recorded how many times I sat there with a mom who said, ‘You know, I was so bad at math and I just don’t have expectations for my daughter; we just get through it,’ so many times,” Armijo said. “That’s what I would say the best thing we can do in society is never tell our daughters that. I think that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and letting girls off the hook.”
And some research supports the idea that boys and girls learn differently. Dr. Abigail Norfleet explores that in her books “Teaching the Female Brain” and “Teaching the Male Brain.” She took the position that both biology and environment influence how girls learn.
Other studies, like one examining gender differences in mathematical reasoning, assessed kindergartners playing math games.
“No gender differences were found between the mathematical achievements of the boys and girls, or between their verbal and spatial skills,” the study read. “However, mathematics performance was related to boys’ spatial reasoning and to girls’ verbal skills, suggesting that they use different processes for solving mathematical problems.”
A 2008 paper by Jennifer Blue and Debra Gann in Science Scope said that “girls and boys enter kindergarten with the same measured math abilities. By the time they graduate high school, however, girls are behind boys in both math ability and self esteem.”
The researchers found that the middle school years tended to be pivotal in that trend.
Tutor Tisa Djahangiri said fear of not being good held her back. And it might be doing the same for some of her students at the summer math camp.
“We don’t like to try things we’re not good at,” she said. “Fear is scary, and so is setting yourself up for failure.”
And the fear of failure may not be a worry about being wrong but, rather, fear of speaking up in the first place. Although Kleyman majored in math as a college student, she said being shy didn’t help.
“I was really insecure growing up, and it was weird to be the smart kid and weird to like math,” she said. “But I’ve always been good at math, and I’ve always really liked math.
“I never had someone pull me aside or just sit me down and say, ‘It’s OK to be good at this, it’s OK to learn more, don’t be afraid to ask questions,’” she said. “Just having those one-on-one experiences would’ve affected me significantly, and so it’s important for me to be able to sit down and talk to these girls about that.”
She tells them to be open to trying and not to “sit down and stop right away because you’re not seeing the answer immediately.”
Games make it easier
Depending how your daughter feels about math, signing her up for a math camp might not warrant immediate excitement. But Kleyman said that changes.
“Some of these first-graders, they’re so young,” she said. “Some of them come in in tears: ‘I don’t have any friends. Why am I doing a math camp.’
“But by Day Five it’s totally a different story,” she said. “They’ve learned all these new things. It’s always exciting.”
Games and fun approaches to math that students didn’t know before help.
Lottie MacGregor, 11, said the camp “gets me started for the school year.”
Even though Lottie prefers English to math, she said, the camp is different.
“I like it because there are a bunch of games you play,” she said.
Ava Kelly, 12, said she needed a little bit of catchup time with math before the school year began.
“I don’t like it,” she said.
But what she did like was creating her own bedroom with an imaginary $1,000 budget. What designs would she have? What furniture could she purchase? Where would everything go?
While Ava created her dream bedroom, other girls in the camp acted as cashiers for a midmorning snack time. They counted out, in change, what the cost of Goldfish crackers and muffins would be with tax.
Djahangiri can relate to her students who aren’t sold on math quite yet.
“My relationship with math is that it was not my favorite subject,” she said. “It was definitely hard, but it’s such a necessary thing in the world.”
The way math was taught when she was in school didn’t stick, Djahangiri said.
But she said that what these girls are modeling — “doing math without thinking about it,” as she put it — is a “cool way to practice without it being too intimidating.”
The summer program enlists female tutors on purpose.
“As an all-girls staff we want to be positive role models for them and hopefully make them excited about math and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] subjects in a new way,” Kleyman said. “Maybe we can open their eyes to new opportunities ahead of them that they wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.”
Later in the morning the girls moved from the classroom to the playground. They gleefully jumped up and down as many times as they could in 60 seconds, counting the hops. Then they shared their numbers with the group — the perfect setup for a comparison of mean, median and mode with those numbers and a dash of friendly competition thrown in for good measure.
“I just like how math does that,” Kleyman said. “You can see the wheels are turning in their heads when they’re figuring things out or when the lightbulb is going off. It’s fun to see that.”
Lessons continue ins school
Schools in Teton and surrounding counties pick up where summer math programs leave off. Educators combat the fear of math often.
It’s socially unacceptable, former teacher and current math coach Armijo said, to say you aren’t a reading person. So why is it OK to say you aren’t a math person?
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times, “Make your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later” brought up some interesting thoughts for Armijo. She’s a fan of guided discovery and “figuring out mathematics in a beautiful way.”
She agreed that thinking you’re not very good at something “can be a quick path to disliking it and avoiding it.” She cautioned against rote practice, memorization and drilling when it comes to math.
She’d rather see students, regardless of gender, find the “why” and not just memorize a formula. It’s all about justifying their thinking, she said.
“When I learned math it was in a very procedural way,” Armijo said. “There was never a why. It was “Just do it 25 times and you’ll have it and you’ll remember it.’”
Thinking about the why helps in the real world when math is used by dietitians, chemists, engineers and others.
“It’s different every single time, so memorizing a formula isn’t going to help them in their field,” Armijo said.
Stanford professor Jo Boaler is one of Armijo’s key experts, especially when it comes to learning about how children see their relationship to math.
“Her whole approach is around mindset,” Armijo said. “She talks about how, yes, there are a lot of myths around mathematics. Her whole take on it is that there’s no such thing as a math mind. Every single brain can learn mathematics at a high level and it’s really how it’s presented and how we perceive ourselves, learning about it, that will make you a ‘math person’ or a ‘not a math person.’”
Some students, like Kat Ankeny, 11, have another layer on top of how they view math. As a dual immersion student, Kat is learning math in Spanish, although her first language is English. She likes reading and writing more and finds that learning a subject in another language is tricky.
“I don’t really understand,” she said.
The state tests Kat and her classmates on math in English, not Spanish. Because of that, math will be taught in both languages starting this year at Munger Mountain Elementary School.
Whether students are in dual immersion or a traditional classroom, Teton County schools is placing an emphasis on “number talk.” That involves a teacher asking a question and then students working to solve the answer with mental math. They discuss answers with one another, making it visual in their minds, and do it in as many ways as possible. Verbalizing it as a group and dialogue with one another breaks down the tendency to sharing only the correct answer or to think in just one way.
That approach is basically the same for boys and girls.
“Our goal at Teton County School District is to make sure all kids are learning math, especially at the elementary level,” Armijo said. “We’re trying to give them a rich environment to have all kids learning.”