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Researcher Assesses 'Discourse' in Helping Girls Learn Math

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In a new analysis of the problem of gender inequities in mathematics instruction, Katherine Hanson, a researcher at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., suggests that the "discourse'' in math classes may provide a key to stimulating young women to study the subject.

Drawing on existing research, her report, "Teaching Mathematics Effectively and Equitably to Females,'' indicates that the conversations that take place in the classroom between teachers and students often contain subtle--and not-so-subtle--hints that math is an inappropriate topic for young women to study.

Changing those conversations, Ms. Hanson suggests, would help draw females into the field.

Ms. Hanson, whose analysis was published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, discussed her research with Staff Writer Peter West.

Q.
What fresh insights does your research shed on addressing the disparity between the performance of male and female students in math?

A.
I think where I started with this was a question: "We know what works for boys''--and I want to preface that by saying we know what works for white middle-class boys--so if we know what happens for boys, do we then just continue to create math programs that try to tinker with that?

I was really wanting to see where we could take the idea if we move away from saying, "O.K., this is what works for boys, how do we make it work for girls?'' Can we start having a different conversation?

I was interested in that whole issue of discourse, of what really happens in the classroom.

I had recently read [the linguist Deborah] Tannen's book [You Just Don't Understand], and I was chuckling about it to myself when I came across some research ... [that indicated] that when teachers began interacting with the girls in a [math] classroom, the boys started acting out.

So I asked myself, "Is there something else going on besides pure mathematics instruction and, if there is, how do we start looking at it?''

I am really interested in that "conversation'' that happens [there].

If we change the language, if we're constructing something different, then what happens? We don't know what happens yet because we haven't done it.

Q.
You seem to indicate that the closing gender performance gap appears to point out that environmental factors and the social structure of the classroom may lie at the root of inequity. Is that the case?

A.
The current curriculum teaches to middle-class white males, but statistically [they represent] about 15 percent of the male population.

The assessments that we use are geared to a set of expectations that are geared to one particular group of people.

It's not that girls can't do the math; what we're talking about is the concepts underlying the instructional strategies.

We're calling it a "girl problem,'' but I don't think it [is]. The question is "Are we making it a girl problem?''

Q.
Your research seems to indicate that patterns of socialization which are key to this discourse are established early in childhood and prior to entry into the formal educational system. How do you propose that educators address this problem?

A.
If you remember early education history, the curriculum was set up to perpetuate certain values. We've also used education to foster a certain kind of participation in the democratic system.

But, until recent years, there hasn't been a focus on how do we teach the "other kids.''

I think we have to acknowledge we have used education to create the kind of citizen that we wanted.

We need to be very conscious about what we're doing. Otherwise, we're perpetuating mathematics achievement for a very small percentage of people.

Q.
You state that changing teacher attitudes is "critical'' to changing patterns of socialization. How do you suggest making meaningful changes?

A.
I'm very optimistic about that. Teachers are incredibly creative human beings; given the support, teachers will change.

But you can't create a sense of excitement about things that were terrifying to you the first time around.

In some cases, [districts] are having them go through experiential kinds of workshops. ... The teachers then can go back and be very comfortable with their own teaching.

[W]hat we haven't looked at is the unconscious discourse that goes on in the classroom.

There's something about the language of mathematics that is alienating, not just for girls, but for many people.

And from my perspective, for example, I think it would be incredibly boring to sit in a math class that centers around football scores.

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