+ Math and Science Success: Parents Make a Difference

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From an article in Education Week, by Sean Cavanagh: 

Researchers are addressing the connection between parental influence and children’s motivation and achievement in math and science.  Educators and policy makers are searching for ways to urge more students to pursue advanced studies and creers in those subjects.

Studies suggest that even subtle prodding, as well as direct encouragement, goes a long way toward determining whether boys — and especially girls — take an interest in math and science as they get older, and whether they thrive academically in them.

A recent study at Penn State and the University of Michigan found that fathers, in particular, have a major influence on whether daughters develop an interest in math. 

It also found that parents tend to do more to encourage their sons than their daughters to develop such interests.  They do so through such actions as buying them more math- and science-related toys, and by voicing stereotypes about girls’ supposed shortcomings in those areas of study.   

Parents Pass on Stereotypes 

The Michigan and Penn State study, published in 2005, was presented at a conference this past May.  Titled, I Can, But I Don’t Want To: The Impact of Parents, Interests and Activities on Gender Differences in Math“, it expanded on past research showing that parents’ opinions and behaviors are factors in determining chilren’s interest in math and science.  (The report was published by Cambridge University Press as part of a book, Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Approach.)

According to the study, parents tend to provide more “math supportive” environments for their sons than for their daughters, not only by buying them more math- and science-related toys, books and games, but also by spending more time with them on these subjects and activities.

Parents also hold gender stereotypes and convey them to their children.

Researchers found that fathers’ gender stereotypes are especially strong predictors of children’s interest in math.  The more entrenched the father’s gender stereotype, the less likely his daughter is to take an interest in the subject.  Boys’ interest in math tends to be stronger if the father’s traditional gender biases are stonger.

Mothers’ gender stereotypes about boys having more math talent, by contrast, tend to affect sons and daughters almost equally.  The stronger the mother’s stereotype, the less enthusiasm both sons and daughters had for math.

Similarly, parents can sway children’s opinions of science; this was found in a 2003 study done by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  The study reported that parents of 11- to – 13-year olds were more likely to believe that science was more difficult and less appealing for their daughters than it was for their sons.

The authors also found that fathers, when teaching their children about science-related subjects, used more probing, sophisticated scientific language and questions with their sons than they did with their daughters.  Those fathers could be “encouraging intellectual engagement” more with their sons than with their daughters.

It has also been found that fathers are more likely than mothers to encourage gender stereotypes among children.  Their tendency to use more demanding scientific language with boys, assuming they can handle it, may reflect that habit, says Campbell Leaper, an author of the California study.

And, according to Leaper, teachers and school peers also convey gender stereotypes about math and science ability, often unintentionally.  On the other hand, he says, many stereotypes about male and female interests and abilities have lessened as professional opportunities for women have increased.

Female students have more role models in math and science than they once did.  Leaper often asks his students haw many of them had a female math teacher in school.  Twenty years ago, few had; today it is much more common.

A key to building girls’ involvement is “increasing teachers’ and parents’ awareness of what [prevalent] biases are, and their awareness that boy and girls are capable of doing equally well in these subjects,” says Mr. Leaper.

“Selling” Math and Science

Gender differences in students’ math and science achievement received considerable attention in the 1980s.  Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest — possibly because of increasing concerns about the shortage of students, especially women, entering technical, engineering, and other such fields.

While both boys and girls tend to lose interest in math and science as they move from elementary to high school, girls’ interest and confidence falls off more sharply (according to the National Center for Education Statistics).

Boys outperform girls in math and science across grades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and on several of the math- and science-related Advanced Placement exams.  Also, relatively few women pursue postsecondary studies in fields such as engineering and computer science.  Business leaders and others say that overall trend robs the US of skilled workers and entrepreneurs.

Yul Inn, the founder of the Fun Math Club (a Cupertino-based company through which he offers specialized math lessons and hands-on projects and activities to schools and individuals), says many parents want to encourage their children in math and science but don’t know how.

He stages “family math nights,” where children and parents work on math activities together.  He urges parents to discuss math in less formal ways than their children are likely to encounter in school.

Pieter Noordam, a parent who attended Mr. Inn’s sessions, says any parent can promote math at home.  Ask your children, he says, to make sense of what they see   — in a museum, on the street, or in a garage.  Good mathematics is part of good parenting.

source: Education Week article by Sean Cavanagh on 11/15/07 (www.edweek.org)

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com  

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