Sunday, January 9, 2011

Physiology and Mathematics Education

As a math lifer, I'm concerned about what more and more people are calling a crisis in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in the United States. It seems as if every few days we read about the U. S. lagging behind other countries in math or science test scores. We continue to lead the world in innovation for the moment, but it's hard to picture how we can sustain that lead without producing (or importing) more scientists and engineers (and, dare I say, mathematicians).  Equally importantly, in the age of the "information economy", if average U. S. citizens (not the ones in the right tail on math scores) come up short in STEM ability, where are they going to find jobs that pay respectable salaries?  (This is very important to me:  I'm on the cusp of retirement, and I'm counting on them both to pay down the burgeoning national debt and to sustain my lifestyle once my paychecks stop.)

The press (and, thus, the populace) are gradually waking up to the looming crisis, as evidenced by government panels, legislation, academic workshops and periodic episodes of public hand-wringing.  Naturally, this spawns a wave of finger-pointing as we seek (a) one single explanation for what is undoubtedly a phenomenon with multiple roots and (b) someone (other than ourselves) whom we can blame.  A backgrounder from the Heritage Foundation aptly points out that if the K-12 pipeline does not produce students well grounded in science and math, colleges and universities will be hard-pressed to find students willing and able to major in those subjects (and, by extension, graduate program enrollments will also suffer).

Now please indulge me in an apparent digression that will actually tie back (I hope).  I recently found myself engaged in a conversation about math education, math ability and its connection (if any) to gender.  In this conversation, I recalled a colleague (a professor of economics) complaining to me that his daughter had essentially been told outright by a high school teacher that, being female, she should have diminished expectations for learning upper level mathematics (I suspect this meant calculus, but the conversation was long ago and the details elude me).  My colleague was justifiably apoplectic.

I also recalled some misadventures from my graduate student days, when I taught a math class for elementary education majors.  On paper, the course dealt with how to teach math to K-6 students.  In practice, it meant (gulp) teaching K-6 math to college students majoring in elementary education.  Lest you think I exaggerate, let me share an anecdote.  My then girlfriend also taught the course, in the summer, when the students were elementary school teachers returning to pick up additional credits.  One student asked if she could bring her eight year old son to class to avoid daycare hassles, which request my girlfriend was happy to accommodate.  On the day of the first exam, she saw him sitting with nothing to occupy him, so she game him a spare copy of the exam, figuring he could color on the back.  Instead, he flipped it over, did the exam -- and received the highest score in the class!

So, on the one hand, we have people telling children that they are doomed to be weak at math (and science?) because they lack a Y chromosome.  I suspect similar comments are made based on race or other factors.  On the other hand, we have teachers (at least in elementary school) who themselves are weak in math (and science?) and are inclined to pass their fear of the subject on to their students.  (If the teacher finds something difficult, he or she is likely to communicate to the pupil that the pupil should not worry about finding it challenging.)  On the gripping hand (and this is purely my conjecture), I suspect we also discourage students of all levels from taking STEM courses by rewarding them for weak work in non-STEM courses.  I think it's harder to give inflated grades in STEM subjects because they tend to have definitive correct and incorrect answers.  (At least it's harder for me to give them.)  At the same time, it's easy for a student to be discouraged at having to work hard for medium grades in STEM subjects when they can get better grades with less effort in other classes.

What ties this to the STEM crisis, for me, is a recent article in Newsweek about physiological triggers for improvement (or degradation) in the human brain.  Specifically, according to author Sharon Begley,
Finally, being told that you belong to a group that does very well on a test tends to let you do better than if you’re told you belong to a group that does poorly; the latter floods you with cortisol, while the former gives you the wherewithal and dopamine surge to keep plugging away.
So the effect of communicating diminished expectations to students may be more than psychological; it may trigger physiological changes that create a self-fulfilling prophecy ... and, in doing so, deepen the STEM crisis.


  1. This is a fantastic post, Paul. I don't have anything to add, since you covered the issues very well. I am surprised 9and saddened) that anyone would tell a woman in this day and age that her math abilities may be limited. I suppose gender stereotypes die hard.

  2. @Laura: Thanks (and thanks for the link on your blog). I believe the HS teacher in question was male, but I've also heard of female teachers saying the same thing, which is in some respects more dispiriting (but not surprising -- it gives them an excuse for their own limitations). Scientific fact (and political correctness) aside, this is not a good time to be discouraging anybody from taking a whack at math.

    One of the issues may be ensuring that people who teach math are actually interested in math themselves (and confident in their own abilities). When I taught the math ed course (and granted this was a generation plus ago), I had students saying that they didn't understand why they needed to know math when they were going to be teaching English/music/history... Unfortunately, the combination of budget cuts and union "bumping" rules meant that some of them ultimately were going to be "teaching" math.

  3. A comment from the UK. In order to teach primary school here, it is essential to have a high school pass in math. My wife (a secondary math teacher) also coached one-to-one. A prospective primary teacher approached her for coaching one-to-one, because she could not pass the math exam she needed.
    My wife refused to teach the young lady, because she had announced that the reason she had failed the exam in the past was "I hate math". Why? "Because if you say that you hate math, you will infect all the children that you teach in primary school." A few days later, the young lady returned, penitent, apologised, and has gone on to be an enthusiastic teacher of primary children _including_ encouraging them in their math.

  4. Please convey to your wife my sincere respect for taking that position. I'm happy to hear the young lady found her way back to the Light Side. I have not kept up with our licensing requirements for primary school teachers here, but I'm not optimistic that we require any measurable mathematical competence, and I'm sure we do not police attitudes.


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