Developing girls’ mathematics identity through teacher education

A version of this post originally appeared on the Furthering Girls’ Math Identity blog. Reposted with permission.

The author is a member of the Girls’ Math Identity Networked Improvement Community and served as the moderator of a panel at the Furthering Girls’ Math Identity event held in June 2015 in Washington, DC. The event, hosted by FHI 360 in partnership with IMPAQ International and the New York Academy of Sciences, brought together a select group of researchers and practitioners to define common research goals and priorities around girls’ math identity. Read more about the Furthering Girls’ Math Identity project and how to become involved.

Developing girls’ mathematics identity through teacher education

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A disturbing trend has developed showing that decreasing numbers of girls and women are majoring and entering careers in science, mathematics, engineering, technology and computer science (STEM-CS). Some of this decline is attributed to how math is taught in schools. If students do not find math interesting, if the teaching of math is described as boring or not fun, and if students do not see the relevancy or application of math in their personal lives, then students and girls particularly are not going to be interested in or pursue careers in mathematics or any of the other STEM-CS fields.

Since math and science both suffer from teacher and student low self-efficacy, it is extremely important to make these subjects interesting and relevant. Thus, much of my role as a science teacher educator working with preservice and in-service elementary teachers is to begin building a foundation for them to become reacquainted with math and science and to excite an interest of learning these areas, so that they can do the same for their students. Below I outline a few ways teacher education can support the development of girls’ math identity. A first step is to encourage a math and science identity with teachers during their teacher preparation with the hope that they will foster math and science identity with their students.

Develop a language of “Yes, you can!” and “I know you can!”

A majority of teacher candidates enter their preparation programs feeling that they are not good at math and science. They say, “I am not a math person” or “I am not good at science” or “I don’t like math and science.” This negative attitude gets passed on, resulting in students who then view math and science as not fun, not interesting and not for them.

The work of the teacher educator is to offer new ways for teacher candidates to become reacquainted with math and science through activities that show how these areas are related to each other, to everyday life and to learning. Teacher educators have to show reluctant teacher candidates how they can solve problems and discuss issues that utilize math and science. At the same time, teacher educators have to provide reassurance, showing teacher candidates they can do and understand math and science. Then, as classroom teachers who have learned to view math and science in positive ways, they can pass on this new excitement to their students. For example, using encouraging language such as “Try this because I know you can do it” encourages engagement.

Help girls to see mathematics and science in their everyday life

We use math and science in a variety of ways in our everyday life, and helping teacher candidates see this for themselves will allow them to help girl students to see it in their own lives. In my science methods course I ask teacher candidates to take pictures of Science in the City. When they bring the photos to class, we connect science to the pictures, such as a tree growing on the side of a building as an example of adaptation. I also use their photos to broaden the view that math and science are all around us. For instance, I point out the symmetry in a leaf, or patterns and shapes in a stained-glass mirror of a church building across the street from campus. Teachers are often surprised when they can see so many connections of mathematics and science all around them.

Teachers are often surprised when they see connections of mathematics & science all around them. Share on X

Discuss careers in mathematics and science

When teacher candidates take courses in mathematics and science, they have to be exposed to the many possible career choices that are available to girls. This can be done by asking them to question their students on what they would like to do when they grow up. I have found that, although they might not realize it, many girls’ career interests are connected to math and science, and both teacher candidates and girls are often quite surprised to see the connections. I shared these examples with teachers, parents and guidance counselors in a recent talk about careers that connect to science: (a) Interest in fashion requires chemists to develop fragrance lines; (b) Interest in criminal justice, such as CSI or Law and Order, requires forensic scientists and computer technicians to solve crimes and run tests; (c) Music industry requires engineers for sound, lighting and video production; and (d) Exercise and fitness requires knowledge of the body and biochemistry as well as an understanding of ratio, such as body mass index.

In summary, to encourage mathematics and science identity with girls, teacher educators need to develop classroom teachers who can promote math and science identity first in themselves so that they are better equipped to pass [it] on to their girls.

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