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Articles Angers Women's Mathematics Group

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Toronto--A news account of a study that found boys far outnumbered girls in a group of high achievers in mathematics has angered a group of female mathematics educators meeting here recently.

The article, published in the April 19 People magazine, reports the findings of Julian Stanley, a psychologist at The Johns Hopkins University who has completed a nationwide search for youngsters under 13 years of age who have scored 700 or higher on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Of the group of 124 students, only eight were girls, and the magazine quotes the researcher as saying, "Generally, boys have superior mathematical reasoning ability."

The article continues, "One explanation, Stanley speculates, is that girls are taught that math is unfeminine." The headline on the article reads, "Do Girls Equal Boys in Math Ability? Psychologist Julian Stanley Says No," and the story is accompanied by a photograph of Mr. Stanley with five of his "prize students," all of whom are boys.

The article elicited an angry reaction from the members of Women in Mathematics Education (wme), meeting here in conjunction with the annual gathering of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (nctm).

"The real issue is not the substance of the article, but the tone and the implications of the photograph and the headlines," says Judith Jacobs, past president of wme and a professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Mr. Stanley's second comment, which suggests that "nurture," not "nature" accounts for the difference in mathematics achievement between boys and girls, describes the situation more accurately, she notes.

"It's as if a brilliant girl mathematician were some kind of genetic mutant," Ms. Jacobs says. An activist in the group, Ms. Jacobs thinks that achievement studies like those conducted by the Johns Hopkins researcher do not take into account the differences in people's attitudes toward boys and girls.

Her views are shared by other members of the group, including its new president, Marie Haley, who is academic dean of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., and the organization's outgoing president, Joanne Becker of Virginia Technological Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

The group, which promotes leadership among women in the mathematics-education community and attempts to combat women's traditional avoidance of mathematics, is to become affiliated with the larger mathematics organization in June.

The disadvantages that women face in mathematics training can be traced back to the cradle, asserts Ms. Jacobs, who is coauthor of a recently published paperback called Playthings as Learning Tools.

If little girls were given blocks and building sets as well as dolls, both in kindergarten and at home, they would show more interest in mathematical concepts, she believes. If problem-solving techniques were stressed in traditionally female domains like cooking (measurement conversion) as they are in male-dominated interests like sports (batting averages), girls would be at a greater advantage. Finally, if mathematics teachers gave as much attention and encouragement to girls as they now do to boys, then girls would become more successful in mathematics, she asserts.

"The sexist language in textbooks is gradually changing, but teacher behavior is not," agrees Marie Haley. She points to a knowledge of mathematics as a critical filter for many careers, such as business and engineering, and even for traditionally female careers like li-brary science, nursing, and teaching. In proportion to their population, not enough women are pursuing mathematics studies, she argues.

"There is absolutely no evidence of genetic differences in math ability," asserts Ms. Jacobs. "It is all a matter of social pressure."

There is more difference in mathematics ability within each sex than between the two, Ms. Becker adds. Some men excel at mathematics, while others fail; the same differences exist among women, she says.

Recent studies in two fields of research--one indicating that the left and right hemispheres of the brain control separate and distinct functions, the other documenting the apparent superiority of women in verbal ability and of men in understanding spatial concepts--underscore the need to work more diligently with female students.

wme officials believe that more effort should be made to train girls to improve their ability to deal with those concepts.

Research has shown, they say, that people can be trained to do so. In one study, girls, in fact, improved more than boys after such training, but the boys benefited from it as well, say the mathematicians.

Boys are more apt to have difficulty learning to read than are girls, and the federal government is supporting programs in remedial reading, but far less is devoted to remedial mathematics, and there is no funding for remedial classes in "spatial visualization," they point out.

Since girls have stronger verbal skills, an effort should be made to use words more often in place of mathematical symbols, particularly in subjects such as statistics, they suggest.

The wme also tackles other issues like reducing"math anxiety" among female students and promoting efforts to attract more women to mathematics-oriented professions. The organization has also produced a series of tapes called "Multiplying Options and Subtracting Bias."

For information about the tapes and about membership in the group, write to wme, c/o Judith Jacobs, George Mason University Education Department, 440 University Dr., Fairfax, Va. 22030.

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