My daughter does not want to study Maths. What should I do?

DALL·E 2023 02 02 11.02.13 an image of a worried parent of a teenager 300x300

My daughter does not want to study Maths. What should I do?

One thing that has come across vividly in our field of work is the growing aversion to Maths in teenage girls. It troubles parents as they are perpetually conflicted about pressuring their children. They think an expensive tuition teacher can help, but more often than not, it does not help.

When we dug deeper, we were left flabbergasted by the findings of national surveys. The National Achievement Survey 2021 found that boys and girls start at the same level, and there is no substantial difference till Standard VIII. However, by Standard X, girls start falling behind boys in Mathematics.

Girls perform poorly compared to boys in Maths in 27 out of 38 states and union territories in India. In almost all other streams, girls have started outperforming boys, especially in language and social sciences. In the US, more girls are taking AP courses than boys. When it comes to STEM subjects, boys outnumber girls by a significant margin. A study done by Microsoft in partnership with KRC Research implores parents (both mom and dad) to actively encourage girls to study Maths. If parents take interest in their learning and stand-by with their daughters in the struggle, it improves their chances of sticking with the subject.

It is quite possible that at a subconscious level, we still see Mathematics as a subject for men and reinforce it at homes and schools. Studies have identified cultural norms, teacher bias, and parental attitudes as the reasons for driving girls away from Maths. In a classroom, when a teacher invites a boy to answer Maths questions, it sets the tone to see men as role model. At home, in the desire to protect kids, parents do not discuss money with girls. Nor do they invite them to play games like Sudoku.

For the longest time, Mathematics has been considered the preserve of men. It is in the last hundred years that women have entered the formal education system. It is important to remember the odds that women had to fight for equal female rights and place in society. In British India, the first two women who graduated – Chandramukhi Ganguly and Kadambini Ganguly faced institutional challenges as universities could not believe that women could clear the entrance examination. Google celebrated Kadambini Ganguly’s birthday by dedicating a doodle in her honour. We need to see more such celebrations.

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As concerned parents, educationists, and champions of girls, we can do our bit in promoting Maths studies amongst girl students. We have a 5-point action plan for all of us.

1) Show Role Models and their Struggles

For every male mathematician or scientist celebrated at school and home, we can make an effort to point out a woman who has faced far more challenges to achieve a similar level of success. For instance, there are only two women winners of the prestigious Fields Medal since its inception in 1936 – Prof Maryana Mirzakhani of Stanford University and Prof Maryna Viazovska of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

If you need another heroic struggle example, show your girls the video of Joyce Bell Burnell. Her pioneering work in running the radio telescope and discovery of a quasar led to Hewish and Ryle’s Nobel Prize. The Noble committee ignored Bell Burnell’s contribution. Not to be deterred, Prof Bell Burnell gave her prize money of $3 million from the Breakthrough Challenge to support girls in sciences.

2) Maths is an additive science

Somewhere in middle school, Maths moves towards complex abstractions. It is when children encounter their first struggles with the subject. A sub-par teacher, an unconducive classroom scenario, or a similar situation at home can derail a girl child’s learning. They start performing unsatisfactorily in exams and lose faith in their abilities. Maths requires conceptual clarity at every step, and not having a good base becomes a multiplier, and a downward spiral starts.

Peer acceptance matters the most to early teenagers. No one wants to be called out in class as an average student. It is when the thought of dropping Maths starts developing in the minds of young girls.

Teachers can preempt this and ensure they take the whole class along. As parents, we have an OCD for academic grades. The raison-d’etre of school education is grades.

Recently, I saw a story about Japanese schools where the teacher invites the student facing the biggest hurdle to come forward and solve the problem. The entire class comes together to support their friend to understand and crack the difficulty. If true, it is a sublime intervention. It normalises struggles with a subject and allows the children to be open about their challenges. It forces classroom focus to shift to the median level rather than a few bright stars and makes peer support a regular school activity.

Let us accept struggle as a regular course of life and not make every effort to remove it from the lives of our children. Parents can do their bit by not being obsessive about grades and keeping a long-term view. Teachers and schools can play their part by not making class distinctions between sciences and humanities students.

3) Proficiency in Language and Maths for all

Many students find no real use of Maths concepts in life, and parents chime in with their own experiences. If we see Maths in the narrow confines of the school syllabus, this logic should expand to several other subjects. Parents need to understand that the job of any high school education is to enable graduating students with two core skills – the ability to read, write and critically analyse text and express it in their own language, and to develop numerical skills. It distresses me to see many graduating school students have almost nil ability to write a cogent paragraph on any topic, and girls start hiding the moment you start a discussion on fractions and percentages.

I urge parents not to dismiss school pedagogy. Designing a school curriculum is a specialised science, and we need to trust subject experts. It is as critical for science students to study language as it is for history students to feel confident with numbers. One of the biggest dis-services we have done in recent years is allowing students to drop Maths in their high school. It is the reason I prefer the IB curriculum, which mandates all students to study Maths and two languages.

4) Mathematics is a way of life

One of the pet peeves of international university admission officers, when they see Indian students, is that they are paper tigers. Our students are very good at cracking exams but do not engage with their subjects at a deeper level. Parents can play a role here by instilling an innate comfort with numbers. Maths is everywhere. While driving, you can ask your child to check the divisibility of a car registration number. When in an elevator, you can ask your daughter to calculate the average weight to determine the total capacity. At dinner in a restaurant, you can ask for a quick mental maths to calculate an appropriate tip amount for the staff. The idea here is to get comfortable with numbers outside the class and remove the unnecessary fear of Maths that lurks around.

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5) Have an open dialogue

In my work, I follow a 3-step formula with young girls who express their reluctance to continue with Maths. Step one, I invite them to think of a date with a caveat that their partner has one limitation – he cannot speak or write. Any discussion about dating gets me the first serious look from them. Their reservation comes across clearly after a few initial moments of preening. It sets the tone for language and numerical skills for boys and girls.

In step two, I ask them about the importance of economic independence in their lives. Thankfully, we live in an era where all women want to be self-reliant. Step three, I ask them if they will accept if, for the same job, men make more money than women. By this time, they have suitably warmed up to the idea and reject it outright. That is when I invite them to think of Maths as a tool to develop a comfort with numbers. I also encourage them to think of a future where they will have to negotiate salaries or contracts and make money choices. I also ask young women to think of the struggles that other women have gone through for centuries to get them to a stage where they are not dependent on men for money. I invite them to think of the lives of their mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I implore them not to squander this chance and fritter it away.

I am happy to report that all young girls I have met have voluntarily accepted the challenge of making Maths their friend and embracing their struggle with the subject.

I agree that it is a complex issue. Parents, and especially young girls, need to think about Maths constructively. It will be wonderful if more people are seized of this issue and a larger conversation takes place.

Personally, I find it disconcerting that after all the work done in the last fifty years of getting more girls to schools, we are going back to gender stereotypes that STEM is for boys and Social Sciences are for girls. It would be a travesty if all the hard work done by some exceptional women surrendered in the blind race to get more marks. It would be wonderful to get parents, teachers and all stakeholders to come around and mentor, inspire, support and encourage girls to take the challenge of embracing Mathematics as a part of life.

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