Char and Jim Morrow on New Math Study

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 - 12:00

A recent study by the American Mathematical Society (AMS) examining the participation of boys and girls in elite national and international mathematics competitions concluded that the U.S. fails to develop the mathematical potential of gifted students, particularly girls. It found that girls who do succeed at the highest levels are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from countries where mathematics is more highly valued. Questioning Authority asked Charlene and James Morrow, codirectors of SummerMath and SEARCH, and lecturers, respectively, in psychology and education and mathematics and statistics, to comment on the AMS study. Here’s what they had to say.

QA: Does your own experience bear out the findings in this report?

CM and JM: If you mean, do we see the field of mathematics filling up with people who are currently foreign residents or who are immigrants, yes. And does this trend hold for women? Yes.

QA: The study analyzes data from the most difficult math competitions for young people, U.S. and international Mathematics Olympiads. Is this a sensible way to examine this problem? Why or why not?

CM and JM: If what you mean by “the problem” is that we, especially in the U.S., have consistently missed identifying and nurturing mathematical talent, especially among girls, then studying these kinds of competitions illuminates one aspect of the problem. This has been virtually the only place that mathematical talent in young people has been documented, and only in a fairly narrowly defined manner.

If you are truly interested in providing a more equitable environment for careers in mathematics, then you quickly recognize that solutions cannot be based on who performs well in competitions and how many more students we can get to perform at that level.

We need to help the public understand that you do not need to be good in competitions in order to be good in mathematics. Competitions attract certain kinds of students and develop certain kinds of mathematical talents. While it is a worthy goal to try to broaden the pool of students who might be attracted to competitions, we should also be broadening the kinds of challenges and opportunities that would develop other aspects of mathematical talent. We should value all of these high-level activities. Competitions are not a litmus test of mathematics talent in the general population.

We believe that one of the ideas driving this obsession with talent at the extremes in any field is that Americans love to focus on innate talent. We are not as committed to process or to the idea that almost anything can be achieved through hard work, especially if the results are not immediate. This cultural value alone might explain why American-born individuals participate less often in mathematical careers.

QA: Do men and women--boys and girls--compete differently?

CM and JM: Defining success based on a competitive path favors men. Men have invented and in large part defined competitions, and so few women participate that their influence has not yet been felt--and this would be true of any other group underrepresented in mathematics. While creating gender equity in all aspects of mathematics, including competitions, is good, we need to be careful not to give the message that the only way to be extremely good in mathematics is to behave like boys. A few years ago, one of our SummerMath teaching assistants had participated in Mathematics Olympiad preparation camps. She liked the mathematics, but felt so isolated socially that she decided not to participate any longer.

The AMS study suggests that American-born girls and underrepresented minorities don’t pursue mathematics because it becomes a forced choice between an environment where interests are broad and attachment to narrower goals have not yet developed on one hand, and an environment where interests are much narrower, deeper, and of the “eat, sleep, and breathe” variety. We have found that students perceive a divide between their social worlds and mathematical worlds.

What can happen when this divide is not so deep? Many more girls participate and win in mathematical modeling competitions, in which problems tend to be applications-focused and are solved in teams.

We, as teachers and parents, should be providing bridges between worlds so that choices are not forced on students at an early age with paths diverging sharply, never to meet again.

QA: What kinds of students come to SummerMath and SEARCH at Mount Holyoke? Do you see patterns that are consistent with the report's findings?

CM and JM: Students who come to SummerMath and SEARCH are young women who are academically motivated, but often very broad in their interests and goals. They are a very diverse group with substantial numbers of European Americans, African Americans, and Latinas (smaller numbers of other ethnic groups), and this diversity helps to break down stereotypes about who does mathematics well and who does not. We certainly see many American-born students who have no interest in mathematics competitions. One of our goals is to help our students see that they can become excellent problem solvers without feeling like they need to be faster than everyone else. Our students leave with the idea that practically everyone can do mathematics at the level required for any academic discipline or career. Our students are too old to be identified as profoundly talented in mathematics (imagine that at age 14 or 15!), but they may go on to be talented mathematicians.

QA: How should our education system address this problem? Do you see it as a problem within the schools or a larger cultural problem, or both?

CM and JM: We need to cultivate an atmosphere of curiosity and acceptance for a wide range of interests. Until students feel that expressing curiosity for curiosity’s sake is not only OK, but actually a good pathway for intellectual and personal development, we will not even begin to be able to tell whether “profound talent” is as rare as we think, or perhaps more ubiquitous than we imagine.

The usual points of entry into mathematics are so narrow that the pool from which top talent can be drawn is very small. The mathematics department at MHC explicitly addresses that problem by providing more points of entry, allowing more students to choose mathematics. This is probably not going to affect the group highlighted by the AMS study, but it addresses an issue that we feel is far more important. MHC’s SummerMath and SEARCH programs, in similar fashion, provide points of entry into mathematics for women at a younger age.

We agree with the AMS study that it is a mistake to look at the “top,” see no women, and conclude that women can’t do mathematics. Instead we should look at the “top,” and when we see no women, we should conclude that we must widen the base so as to find the talent that exists. We believe that if you allow for talent to blossom, it will be expressed in many ways, and opportunities should be provided for anyone who wants to go further.

In any case, we are sure that the authors of the study are as frustrated as we are that there are so many cultural barriers between most people and mathematics. We will not change this culture until we can help children see the beauty and power of mathematics. We should begin immediately to take down the barriers that keep so many of these aspects of mathematics secret from most people.

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