Disrupting Racism: Giving Black Girls a Chance to say “I am a Mathematician”

posted Jun 14, 2016, 11:13 AM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 16, 2016, 3:10 PM ]

The Voice of Peshine1

“Um I have really good ears so like even when I am in the car and like the radio is really loud I can hear it. Really good ears, I have really good senses. And I think I am kind of smart and I do really good on my tests in math and stuff.”

“I don't know it's like some people they are born knowing how to draw, they are born knowing how to dance, how to sing, I am just born knowing how to, I just I was born smart like I don't know.”

“Math, I've never really had a problem. Like I am really good at math. Like all my grades in math have been consistently good like that is not a subject I have to worry about. The lowest math score I've got 82.”

“Not really unless it's really, really hard and it's like it's been like five times and I still can't get this question right. I get frustrated, I don't give up but I get frustrated.”

An Illustration of #Blackgirlmagic2 in Influencing Mathematics Identity

These are words from a Black girl in 6th grade mathematics where 90% of the students are Black and 90% are eligible for free or reduced lunch in the eastern region of the United States. These quotes suggest that she has a robust mathematics identity. Even though it seems that she holds a perspective that people are “born smart,” she understands some of the important factors for developing identity—interest, confidence, and persistence. Peshine discussed how her mother was her first teacher to teach her to count and that she gets opportunities to “have a little power” in her math class. An example of a time when she felt more in control of her learning rather than “just be fed to you like you know stuffed down your throat” was when “we had to get with a partner and you had to come up with word problems to go with the equations. Yeah you had to draw pictures about the equations. That's fun.”

The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Mathematics Identity

How do we get all Black girls to develop and further their math identities? A lot of my own research, coupled with 12 years of teaching Black girls in public schools and coaching mathematics teachers, suggest that race matters. Educators’ awareness of the ways in which race operates in our classrooms, schools and society is an important driver in improving Black girls mathematics identities. Race matters in the development of a math identity because some of the factors that influence math identity have to do with interest, socialization, and performance expectations in mathematics—constructs that elude many Black girls because our educational system is entrenched with racism. We know that Black girls face racism in schools because there is a national movement in the United States right now (over $200 million dollars in research and development) about understanding the inequities Black girls face in our schools as well as a call to create the political will to publicly acknowledge their achievements, contributions, and leadership. Black girls are devalued (i.e. viewed as hypersexual, loud, and disrespectful) in many areas including the media, and usually society comes to know who Black girls are through these mechanisms in decontextualized ways. I am sure that not many people know about Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. This book is being made into a movie that will be the untold story of NASA’s Black female mathematicians.

Developing and Furthering Black Girls Identity: A Need to Think Outside of the Box

Peshine can be considered an anomaly. It is not necessarily a normative thing to see and hear Black girls saying “I love math,” or “I am a mathematician.” I think mathematics educators and researchers have an opportunity to leverage the Black girls’ movement to establish interdisciplinary collaborations that focus on public scholarship and research that engages in praxis—acts which shape and change the world. Acts which shape and transform the way we engage in mathematics for all girls, but especially for Black girls. Acts such as eliminating tracking in schools, making race and other social identity constructs a part of the curriculum we use in math teacher education programs, transforming the teaching of math to be more culturally relevant, and engaging mathematicians and mathematics educators in racial projects to discourse and transform. These are structural factors that under-gird racism and limit many Black girls’ opportunities to develop a math identity. This work takes risk, courage, a lot of time, and navigating a political minefield in savvy and strategic ways. But Black girls deserve this focus and effort because we are missing a group of talented women that can help us solve important STEM problems and their unique perspectives, ideas, and experiences as racialized beings in mathematics can provide the field with innovate ways to broaden mathematics and increase participation for other underrepresented groups. Let’s work together to improve these outcomes for Black girls so as to develop more girls like Peshine.

[1] Peshine is a pseudonym and is a participant in a current analysis of Black girls’ experiences in secondary mathematics classrooms being conducted by Joseph, Hailu, and Matthews (forthcoming).
[2] Black Girl Magic is a term used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of Black women. It is about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring, or mind-blowing about ourselves. Retrieved from

Nicole M. Joseph, PhD
(Click name for contact information.)

Nicole Joseph is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. Her research focuses on understanding the experiences of Black girls and women in mathematics across the P-20 pipeline.

The Importance of Teaching Young Women to Take on Challenges in Math and Science

posted Apr 13, 2016, 2:47 PM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 15, 2016, 8:53 AM ]

Decades of research demonstrate a persistent gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) college majors and careers. Many in the research community have argued that students’ beliefs are an important determinant in persistence in these fields, above and beyond math and science ability or achievement in school.

Researchers from Florida State University recently published a study in Frontiers in Psychology, which explored the relation between high school students’ beliefs about math and their persistence in postsecondary STEM fields. Using data from a nationally representative survey (the Education Longitudinal Study), Nix and colleagues followed 4,450 students from 10th grade to two years after high school graduation and examined the interplay between gender, perceptions of ability to succeed under challenging conditions, advanced science course enrollment during high school, and college major. They took advantage of this rich dataset and answered several research questions aimed at understanding why young women are more likely than men to opt out of college majors in STEM.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this study is the focus on students’ perceived abilities when challenged in verbal and math domains and studying in general. For example, students were asked how certain or confident they were that they could "understand the most difficult material presented in English texts" or "understand the most complex material presented by [their] math teacher." The researchers then looked to see if there were gender differences in these perceptions and whether these perceptions predicted advanced science course enrollment and college major selection in students who went on to 2- or 4-year colleges and universities.

Although these domain-specific measures may seem very similar to other beliefs frequently included in achievement motivation research, such as math self-efficacy, Nix and colleagues delineate these measures of perceived abilities when challenged from self-efficacy, explaining that self-efficacy questions typically focus on a respondent’s perceived ability to "do a specific task" and thus may miss a respondent’s immediate and overall assessment of their math ability.

Nix and colleagues found no gender differences in respondents’ perceptions of verbal skills, but young women reported lower perceived abilities when challenged in math during high school, compared to their male counterparts. Young women were also less likely to think that people can learn to be good at math – that is, they were more likely to have a "fixed mindset" about math skills. Taken together, the researchers suggest that these findings might mean that young women are at a disadvantage in terms of being resilient during math-related setbacks or challenges.

Furthermore, young women were less likely than young men to take advanced science courses in high school and findings suggested that math abilities, as measured by test scores, were strongly related to science course selection. This finding suggests the importance of supporting girls’ math skills, so they are equipped with the skills necessary to enroll and succeed in advanced science courses. Interestingly, the researchers went on to find that perceived abilities when challenged in 10th grade math was the only student belief variable that predicted completion of advanced chemistry and physics courses in high school; students who were less confident about overcoming math challenges were less likely to complete advanced science courses. This finding was consistent for both males and females.

Not surprisingly, the researchers also found that completing advanced chemistry and physics in high school increased the likelihood that students would later declare a college major in physics, engineering, math, or computer science. Similarly, young women with higher perceived abilities when challenged in high school math were more likely to major in these fields in college. And both male and female students who had higher perceived math abilities when challenged were also more likely to actually stay in STEM majors, two years after entering college.

So what does this all mean? Gender gaps in the completion of advanced science courses in high school remain, and are likely influenced by both the math ability levels and beliefs of students. These gender gaps in high school course completion likely influence later gaps in STEM college majors and persistence, especially in the areas of physics, engineering, advanced math, and computer science. If we want to close these gaps, we need to help young women develop math skills that will help them succeed in advanced science courses in high school. We also need to equip young women with the tools to take on challenges in math and science, so they are prepared to overcome possible roadblocks and hurdles as they continue through the STEM pipeline.

Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation, provides some helpful tips that educators and parents can use to help students develop these skills in a 2008 report, including:
  1. Teaching students that the brain is a muscle that can get stronger if students stretch themselves and learn new things.
  2. Demonstrating how to embrace challenges and even mistakes by illustrating that valuable experiences often come about as the result of an error or struggle.
  3. Praising students for persevering through challenging circumstances and tasks, rather than putting all of the focus on the final product.

Martha Bleeker
(Click name for contact information.)
Senior Survey Researcher
Mathematica Policy Research

How Many Different Barbies? How Many Different Girls? How Many Different Girls in Mathematics?

posted Mar 7, 2016, 2:23 PM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 14, 2016, 12:06 PM ]

It’s not often that a child’s toy becomes a cover story but that’s exactly what Barbie did on February 8, 2016 (see “A Barbie for Every Body,” Time). The cover story reported how Mattel, the toy giant, finally decided that the 57-year old icon just might need to become somewhat representative of the body shapes of human women (see “What would a Real Life Barbie Look Like,” BBC News Magazine).

The news that Barbie would be available in four “body types”—curvy, tall, petite, and “original”—was not only a Time cover story but also a topic of discussion of nearly every media outlet: radio and television news and talk shows, conventional and avant-garde news papers, and literally dozens of magazines, from Cosmopolitan to WIRED. And, of course, Barbie and her new body types were all the buzz on social media for days.

Never in her 57-year history has Barbie received so much favorable press. But not all of the press in the recent weeks has been favorable, even the news of the different body types came with some of the ongoing critiques. Some of which can even be found in scholarly journals (see “Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8-Year-Old Girls,” Developmental Psychology). Unfavorable critique, in general, is what Barbie has most often experienced. Remember the fortunate unfavorable critique over twenty years ago when Teen Talk Barbie spoke the words, “Math class is tough” (see “Mattel Says It Erred; Teen Talk Barbie Turns Silent on Math,” New York Times).

Nonetheless, Barbie over the years has provided me with a simple and straightforward social justice mathematics lesson, one that can work for nearly any age group. It’s the scaling up lesson (see “How Big is Barbie?MPJ). Depending on the age group, after doing the mathematics one can decide how far to take the social justice issues by asking different questions: Who created the icon? Who does the icon serve? How does the icon reify “a woman’s place”? How does the icon limit “beauty”? How does the icon limit girls’ and women’s possibilities? For older students, one can turn to issues such as eating disorders (see “The Scary Reality of a Real-Life Barbie Doll,” Huffpost College) or to conversations about body images in the media generally, for both girls and boys.

The introduction of new body types is not the first time that Mattel has attempted to reinvent a 1959 toy for twenty-first century girls (and boys). In 2015, Mattel expanded Barbie’s look with the addition of “23 dolls with new skin tones, hair color, and most notably a flat foot” (see “Barbie 2016 Fashionistas Fact Sheet,” Mattel). And over the years, even in her early years, Barbie has had an impressive resume, racking up over 150 careers, including that of a presidential candidate back in 1992.

So, if Barbie was available in any combination of the 4 body types, 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors, 24 hairstyles and textures, and, let’s say, 150 careers, a simple permutation (4 x 7 x 22 x 24 x 150) would provide 2,217,600 different Barbies (see The Math Forum @ Drexel). Obviously, Mattel has no plans to manufacture over 2.2 million different Barbies; it would be a marketing and sales disaster.

Nevertheless, let’s push into the over 2.2 million Barbies. In the permutation of just five characteristics or, might we say, identity markers, the possibility of difference grew exponentially into the millions. What if we were to consider other identities markers beyond body types, “race,” and profession, such as ethnicity, language, class, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, dis/ableness, and so on. I think you get the point. Our 2.2 million different Barbies would quickly expand beyond the nearly 640 million school-aged (6–17) girls in the world.   

That’s a lot of school-aged girls! So, when we say “Furthering Girls’ Math Identity,” which girls are we talking about? Can we group all girls into a single category? Or might there be some sub-categories that make sense? Some sub-sub-categories? How might we be diligent in understanding the need, at times, to strategically group all girls into a single category while simultaneously acknowledging the grave dangers in doing so? How might we acknowledge that there’s not just one Barbie but rather over 640 million? We must be cautious. We must recognize that girls, like all humans, experience life (and mathematics) at intersections of a multiplicity of identity markers.

In the end, to further girls’ math identity, we need to build understandings of how White, English speaking, middle-class girls (might) experience math differently than Black girls, than Latinas, than working-class girls, and so on. We need to learn how we might integrate what we’ve learned about mathematics teaching and learning and other identities markers (e.g., race, ethnicity, language, class, etc.) in our discussions and understandings about furthering girls’ math identity? Although more than 50 years late, we can learn something from the permutations of Barbie. Over 640 million school-aged girls is a lot of different girls!

David W. Stinson

Associate Professor of Mathematics Education

College of Education and Human Development, Georgia State University, Atlanta.

Girls’ Math Identity: Increasing Participation by Changing Definitions

posted Jan 29, 2016, 2:13 PM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 14, 2016, 12:08 PM ]

Students’ math identities have a lot to do with whether they see themselves as capable of mathematics and whether they find math valuable. For the most part, math identity develops in the math classroom, through experiences of doing and learning math. This means that we have an important leverage point for shaping girls’ math identities.

What does it mean to be smart at math?

This is a question I have posed to dozens of students, teachers and parents over the past decade. The responses are generally predictable. It is someone who
  • knows his or her math facts 
  • gets the right answer
  • just "gets it"
  • is fast at figuring things out.
Taken together, the answer is essentially someone who can find the right answer quickly

Isn’t that easy to say? "Find the right answer quickly." And we see this image played out far and wide, and reinforced, through timed tests, the valuing of performances of those who can memorize formulas and execute them quickly and accurately. This is the "right-answer-quick" or the RAQ view of math. This view is narrow. It invokes competition. It provides a way for a clear hierarchy, with someone at the top. It’s very observable, quantifiable and definitive – right/wrong, fast/slow. Beyond not being an accurate reflection of mathematical competence, this view of math is outright damaging to girls and young women. First, we’ll address the accuracy.

The RAQ view of being smart in math misrepresents the field of mathematics. It overemphasizes smaller problems that can be timed and have one right answer. It misses out on large areas of skills such as taking different points of view, leveraging related solutions, communicating with others, and re-representing ideas to gain new insights. The set of skills one needs to be truly proficient with mathematics is vast, varied and powerful. 

But RAQ is not just inaccurate; it is also damaging.  

There is evidence to suggest that girls are less likely than boys to choose to enter into a competitive environment and/or do not enjoy environments that emphasize the individual and marginalize collaboration. They (and some boys, of course, too) are not interested in the competition and elect not to compete even when they are equally competent (Niederle & Versterlund, 2010). The vision offered in most classrooms – the RAQ view of what it means to be “smart in math”– runs counter to who girls want to be and the types of participation and engagement they value and bring with them to the classroom. 

Ways to be smart in math

What does it really mean to be smart in math? Or to emphasize the point: what should it mean to be smart in a math class? We seek an answer to this question in order to more accurately represent math and to help us create classroom environments that are more productive for developing positive math identities for a wider range of students, particularly girls.

When we push a little deeper, a much richer array of qualities arise for someone that is "smart in math." It is someone who 
  • notices patterns and similarities across examples
  • is a logical thinker and can deduce new information from what’s already known
  • can clearly explain her or his thinking and ideas to others 
  • visualizes relationships and can represent relationships in multiple ways
  • can find errors and analyze how/why they occurred 
  • can make sense of other’s ideas and take other perspectives
RAQ skills may help support some of these too, but this list offers a more varied and more powerful set of skills. This view of math – for which there’s no easy descriptor – is not commonly represented in classrooms or in society. We’ll call it the Analyzing, Representing and Thinking view of math, or ART. Most students do not have the opportunities to experience these as consistently valued aspects of a math classroom or of math in general.

Broadening the view of what it means to be smart at math—what it means to be competent mathematically– is crucial. When there is more to being smart in a classroom than RAQ, more students see their own talents, know they can contribute in a math classroom, feel successful and develop positive math identities. To offer an oft-cited quote of Jo Boaler: "Where there are many ways to be successful, many more students are successful" (p 630). The classroom will become a place where students see that different people have different strengths. And in such classrooms, it is less likely that a highly visible, stable hierarchy of “smartness” will emerge based on the easily measurable quantities of right and quick.

Making this kind of change to the ART view of math is not easy. Teachers – with the support of their districts and communities – will need to rethink what it means to be smart and competent in math, and then find ways to have that view reflected in their teaching and assessment practices. They will have to become skilled at recognizing different ways of being smart, and pointing these out so that the class develops a culture around these valued practices. This change also requires that the tasks given to students change. If the opportunities to do math are limited to short, algorithmic problems or tasks, there will be no opportunities to elicit and recognize ART talents. The tasks must require thinking, connecting, analyzing, representing, communicating; they must support authentic opportunities to discuss what ideas or approaches make sense and why. These are tasks at which girls – and boys – excel and which invite girls to participate in challenging mathematical work.

Such efforts are well worth the investment, and they are actionable, now. Broadening the ways that students see smartness in math, and moving from the RAQ view to the ART view, will lead to more girls having positive math identities, greater achievement in math, and more accurate views of the field of math. We are all implicated in this effort, but the classroom is a crucial space where a different, and more accurate, version of what it means to be a good at math can be created. If present throughout a school, or multiple schools in a district, and ultimately in society, we could see very different outcomes in terms of girls' and all students’ math identities and future selection to pursue and participate in STEM fields.

I would like to express my gratitude to the many amazing teachers with whom I have worked and who have allowed me in their classrooms so I could learn these important lessons.  

Associate Professor of Mathematics Education

For more reading on this topic please see:

Niederle, M., & Versterlund, L. (2010). Explaining the gender gap in math test scores: The role of competition. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(2), 129-144.

Boaler, J. & Staples, M. (2008). Creating mathematical futures through an equitable teaching approach: The case of Railside School. Teachers College Record, 110(3), 608-645.

Developing Girls’ Mathematics Identity through Teacher Education

posted Dec 16, 2015, 9:45 AM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 14, 2016, 12:10 PM ]

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 inservice elementary teachers is to begin building a foundation for them to become re-acquainted 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 re-acquainted 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, by 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.

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 on to their girls.

Felicia Moore Mensah is a professor of science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. She served as the moderator of a panel for Furthering Girls’ Math Identity: An Expert Convening held in June 2015 in Washington, DC.

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