Girls are not good at math and science. Boys cannot read. The New York Times appeared to be surprised by these results on the most recent PISA administration, but as a teacher I can't say I was surprised. I was taken aback by Eduardo Porter's claim that we should be most concerned about boys and their poor reading skills. He seems concerned that boys are prone to violence and therefore it is more important that we educate them in order to protect "social cohesion and economic prosperity." Granted I'm thoroughly biased, but I would think girls and women play a crucial role in establishing social cohesion and economic prosperity as well.
Now prepare yourselves because I am about to propose something revolutionary: we should teach boys to read AND improve girls' performance in math and science. We might even be able to do it all at the same time, but I'll come back to that later. The idea that we should focus education on either boys or girls is thoroughly unacceptable. Boys and girls are different, but the differences within groups might be even greater. Yes we can make generalizations about girls and boys and what their likes and dislikes might be, but we're still going to be wrong for a lot of children. For example, I can still remember that on every standardized test I took in secondary school there were reading passages on sports, they were so boring to me, it took a lot of effort to force myself to read those stories and answer the questions. On the other hand, my friend Susie*, who was an amazing softball and soccer player loved those passages, she could relate to them (and she had prior knowledge of what an RBI was). But I bet, whoever included those passages was trying to include topics that would engage boys, and maybe some boys did enjoy reading about baseball but maybe other boys would've preferred to read about bugs or making brownies. The point I'm trying to make here is this: it is dangerous territory when we start trying to cater to students based on gender, instead I suggest we cater to the individual and not any group, gender or otherwise. Give kids more choice in what they read, so that a good proportion of the time, kids are engaged with what they are reading. Even my book club cannot agree to read one book, so we suggest a book, then every one goes and reads whatever book they actually want and we talk about all of our books, which typically leads us to read more books based on what others reported. Why can't this model work for schools in some form? Perhaps with more structure, say, here are four books to choose from, students that choose the same book will form a group for the duration, but maybe in the next round of book choices the groups will change again (and I won't even get into the benefits of mixed grouping).
So girls and math. What are we doing about that? As a teacher, I don't feel like we're doing a whole lot, I have not witnessed any significant changes in how we teach math to make it more accessible or engaging to girls specifically (if your school or district has please comment below because I want to hear more!). What I do know is that we've been teaching math in isolation for over one hundred years, when are we going to start integrating math into the other disciplines such as science and social sciences? Get math out of theory and into practice so girls can gain confidence through application. When are we going to have math experts (people with degrees in mathematics and/or who feel comfortable and knowledgeable with math) teaching our elementary students? To be sure there are some out there and I'm lucky enough to have more than one at my school, but I have heard way too many elementary teachers express concern about their own math ability or confidence in teaching math. Students are very perceptive and even subtle teacher attitudes are passed on to students.
Let's teach boys to be better readers and girls to master math and science. Here's how:
1. Foster a love of reading by giving students more choice in what they read. This can be done across disciplines not just in Reading or English class. I teach an environmental science course and require students to report on current issues connected to the course content, but I let them choose the topic and article, all they have to do for me is justify its relevance and explain its value to the discipline.
2. Focus more on individual motivations than on group motivations. Bring students together into working groups based on a topic of interest, not on external factors such as gender.
3. Start teaching math through science and social sciences. All students benefit when they can see how the math they learned in math class is used in the "real world." It also gives them more practice to develop mastery which may be essential for girls.
4. Support the development of true math experts at the elementary levels. Girls need to know and see that their teachers, who are mostly female, are confident in their own math ability.
5. Rescind the negative attitudes, all stakeholders need to eliminate these. We have to stop saying it's ok for boys not to be good readers, or it's okay for girls to not be good at math and science. Let's start saying, all boys can read just like all girls can do math and science.
Lastly, I mentioned above that we might be able to do a lot of this all at the same time. Again, I must reiterate my bias, not as a woman this time, but as a scientist. Science is the key discipline here - science integrates math, english, and history into one giant ball of wax. As educators, as a nation, we must rethink how we teach science and what we think is most important to teach within science. I would argue, it's not so important that students can regurgitate the phases of mitosis or memorize the periodic table, but rather can they understand the historical value of innovation, invention and scientific thinking? Can they effectively communicate ideas both orally and in writing? Are they able to interpret statistics and evaluate evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion? Can they identify bias in media? Are they able to envision multiple solutions to a single problem? If we truly reinvented how we teach science boys just might become better readers and girls might become scientists and mathematicians.
*Name changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty.
Kerryane Monahan is a forever student, teacher of teachers, adventure-obsessed science educator who writes about science, education, leadership, teacher problems, student problems, curriculum, successes and anything else that skitters through her brain.