Mathematics has returned to the blackboard in the middle of summer and surrounded by controversy. A few days ago, the draft of the new curriculum for Primary Education was released, which proposes “an education in values” and some changes in the core subjects. The most controversial point is the one that proposes to give Mathematics a socio-affective and gender perspective. Despite being only a draft, reactions have not been long in coming from the opposition PP and Vox, who accuse the government of “introducing ideology in the classroom”.
Mathematics with empathy
The new law was designed to “lighten, soften and make them cute”. “Hopefully what we are seeing these days in Afghanistan will help us realize the legendary stupidity of mathematics with a gender perspective,” tweeted the secretary general of Vox in the Catalan Parliament. The tone of the debate has degenerated into political opinions and pleas such as those of Murcia and Madrid, who have promised to defy the law and do “everything in our power to prevent it”. But what does it really mean that Mathematics teaches “emotional skills” or is given with a gender perspective? Does it have anything to do with the difficulty of the curriculum?
“It’s not at all about making it easier, because giving context to something doesn’t mean simplifying it,” says Anabel Forte, PhD in Mathematics and professor at the University of Valencia. She suggests focusing the subject on its applications in real life: “Algebra helps in cryptography and geometry helps in the development of physics; mathematics has a lot of social applications, but we don’t teach them”. Clara Grima, mathematical popularizer and professor at the University of Seville, also believes that, far from “softening them”, these new perspectives “make them more difficult”. “Solving problems is more complicated than doing mathematics, but it is also the powerful, beautiful and fun thing about mathematics”, she thinks.
“If any girl wants to do things for the community and contribute to the betterment of the world, the best thing she can do is study math. That’s the message and that’s the gender perspective,” sums up Grima. Both she and Forte are used to dealing with male and female university students, who have already made their choice and have already made theirs. have opted for a career in science. César Boullosa, on the other hand, teaches Mathematics in Secondary and Baccalaureate, and in those years the gender gap and insecurities are at their highest levels. Although this perception comes from much earlier.
A study in the journal Science shows that girls begin at the age of six to perceive themselves as less bright than their male peers and, in particular, as less suitable for mathematics and more for biology or literature. “It is not a question of “forcing” girls to choose these careers, but of preventing many girls with a vocation from not choosing them just because they don’t think they are capable,” says Boullosa. “It is necessary to promote a vision of Mathematics that is equally attractive to girls and boys,” proposes Forte. One simple way is to stop masculinizing problem statements and give examples that motivate them to solve them.
“It is not about “forcing” girls to choose these careers, but to avoid that many girls with a vocation stop choosing them just because they don’t believe they are capable of it.
César Boullosa – Mathematics Teacher
The Ministry of Education has divided the subject by senses. The first of these is “socio-emotional”, which deals with “recognising sources of stress, maintaining a positive attitude, persevering and thinking critically and creatively”. Of course it also includes number sense, measurement, spatial, algebraic and computational, and stochastic (data interpretation). “We have been caught up in a political war and anything that smacks of gender or emotions is used as a weapon. They haven’t even wanted to listen to what the draft proposal refers to,” laments Forte.
Like her colleagues, Boullosa flatly rejects that any of these changes will have an impact on the quality and demand of the subject. “It’s not about making it easier or reducing the content,” she stresses. “These measures are beneficial for the learning of any subject, but it can have great results in the case of Mathematics by also reducing aversion and anxiety towards it.”
More historical references and better real-life opportunities
Inequality in Mathematics or in those where this subject serves as the backbone of the curriculum is glaring, and it is and will continue to be so in the future.The situation is getting worse. According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, at the beginning, in 1985, the percentage of students enrolled in the degree was fairly equal. The curve changed between 1994 and 2006, when women accounted for more than 60% of the places. But since 2007, female enrolments in Mathematics have fallen below 40%. A pattern that is repeated in many STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors.
“What has changed are the career paths. When I started out, the most common career path for mathematics was to become a teacher. When I met the person who later became my thesis supervisor, I opted for research and statistics because they had that social component”, says Anabel Forte. The case of Clara Grima, who also studied in a feminized environment and in which Mathematics was not a very popular career, is similar. “In Valencia, she didn’t even have a cut-off mark,” recalls Forte. “With the boom of the digital revolution, the entry grade went up and the degree began to be monopolized by men,” says Grima.
“When I entered, we all wanted to be teachers. Then the career lost that character of service to the community, of care, and that’s when women disappeared,” she adds. Mathematics began to be a breeding ground for new technology companies, with the most competitive salaries and the most fierce working environments. “At this point girls started to be more afraid, more anxious and fell behind,” says Grima. Indeed, a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology infers that “messages that brilliance is essential for success undermine women’s confidence about their educational and career opportunities,” contributing to widening gender gaps in fields like math.
The other fundamental key is the lack of female role models. “Many students know how to mention Pythagoras, Thales, Gauss, Euler, Newton and so many others, but almost no one knows how to mention just one female mathematician, not even Emmy Noether, the mother of abstract algebra,” says César Boullosa. The project “No more Matildas”, presented by the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists in February, was born to correct the historical erasure of women scientists, mathematicians and technologists and incorporate them into textbooks. Currently, their presence in school materials barely reaches 7.6%. Thus, in recent months, essential figures such as Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace or the more modern Katherine Johnson have been recovered.
This is not unique to colleges and universities, but the erasure is perpetuated throughout women’s professional development in science. One of the major consequences is what is known as the “leaky pipeline” metaphor. This means that although women are more or equally represented than men in the early stages of a research career, this proportion falls as rank and salary increase: 75% never reach the highest positions.
“The fundamental problem is that technology is highly masculinised and biomedicine is highly feminised, but even in this field the abundance of women does not guarantee that they will lead the teams, as the main researchers are usually men”, explained Marta Macho, mathematician and editor of the website Mujeres con Ciencia (Women in Science). The reality is that 90% of jobs require STEM skills and 10% of our GDP comes from the ICT sector, a percentage that is not covered by men. “We need mathematicians and mathematicians because otherwise they will be brought in from countries that are better motivating their youth to study these careers”, defends Grima.
Arithmophobia, a problem common to all of us
Mathematics causes stress. It is what is known as “arithmophobia”. It is a situation that has been scientifically proven and studied in children and that generates a feeling of aversion towards them. “Before solving a problem, they suffer anxiety that is detected in the brain areas corresponding to pain. When they solve it, it decreases. It is not irrational, it is the effect of society. In pop culture it’s very cool to say that you’re bad at maths”, says Clara Grima. Teachers claim that this painful component should be dealt with and the subject should be approached as “fun” and not as a competition: “Nobody learns with fear”, says the teacher from Seville.
For many people, activities involving mathematics generate stress and anxiety. They have an involuntary fear of calculating or working mathematical content.
known as ANXIETY TOWARDS MATH (aka arithmophobia / fear of math) pic.twitter.com/m0BGl6NWCC-
César Boullosa 🇪🇺 (@cboullo) August 11, 2021
“The socioemotional approach in mathematics should be aimed at helping students to increase their self-confidence, to improve their perseverance, to help them know their strengths and weaknesses, to teach them to value the mistakes they make, to work in teams, to train teachers so that they know how to generate a positive attitude, and to teach them how to work in teams, to train teachers so that they know how to generate a positive attitude towards their students.The teacher proposes Boullosa, a high school teacher, to bring the subject closer to the student (give examples close to them, real life, visualize content, use manipulative material, encourage critical thinking, use technology…), to encourage the student and to emphasize that we all make mistakes”. “A good socioemotional approach would be beneficial for everyone, not just for them,” he insists.
That philosophy eliminates the prevalence of competition, but it doesn’t make it disappear. “We can’t take competitiveness away because the world is competitive, but mathematics is not just about solving the equation in the shortest time possible,” reminds Anabel Forte. “We insist that the gender and emotional perspective only applies to women, but it is beneficial for everyone. We have to teach Mathematics so that people appreciate it and it is not that subject that nobody wants to take”.