Girls' Experiences in Learning School Mathematics

Article excerpt

During the past few decades, gender issues in mathematics education emerged as a controversial topic. Researchers found that female students, at both elementary and secondary levels, perform less well than their male counterparts on standardized tests (Ansell & Doerr, 2000; Beaton et. al., 1996). In other studies, female students, compared to their male counterparts, exhibited lower self-confidence in approaching mathematics and, as a result, were more likely to avoid taking advanced math courses in high school (Eccles et. al, 1983; Meece, Wigfield, & Eccles, 1990). Researchers have argued that female students' lower self-confidence and lack of motivation in school mathematics constitute a complex phenomenon in which various sociocultural forces are dynamically involved. For example, Reyes and Stanic (1988) argued that different sociocultural factors influence female students' experiences with school mathematics, affecting their self-confidence in and motivation for pursuing advanced mathematical knowledge.

Recent national reports and professional studies have underlined that early adolescence is the critical time for female students to develop their motivation and academic identities (Bruner, 1996; Dick & Rallis, 1991; Marlow & Marlow, 1996; National Research Council, 1989; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). However, relatively few studies have explored the first-hand experiences of young adolescent girls with school mathematics. Furthermore, the majority of previous studies on students' motivation have been based on individual psychology that tends to separate students' consciousness from its sociocultural context (Pajares & Graham, 1999; Seegers & Boekaerts, 1996; Wigfield, 1994; Wigfield & Eccles, 1992). As a result, as Atweh and his colleagues (1998) argued, it is hard to find studies that seriously investigate the sociocultural context of students' mathematical learning and their experiences with school mathematics. Similarly, the overall picture of girls' experiences with school mathematics, as well as the dynamic and complex relationship between their motivation and its sociocultural milieu, has not been sufficiently explored.

Therefore, it is important to investigate the everyday experiences of young adolescent girls with school mathematics from a new perspective that does not separate their motivation from its sociocultural context. Such studies will enrich educational researchers' understanding of the nature of students' motivation, including the complexities and dynamics of young adolescent girls' thoughts and attitudes towards school mathematics, in relation to various sociocultural factors surrounding them.

The following cross-case study of four young adolescent girls illuminates their experiences with school mathematics and the impact of sociocultural context on their motivation. In particular, the researcher has examined girls' motivation, based on an innovative concept from Bahktin's circle, "multiple voices and multiple selves." This new theoretical standpoint enables the researcher to explore several significant aspects of girls' experiences with school mathematics and to deconstruct their voices and selves in relation to various sociocultural forces that dynamically constitute aspects of their identity and motivation for learning school mathematics.

Conceptual Framework

This study is based on two different but interrelated theoretical frameworks: Feminist theory and sociocultural approaches to the mind as elaborated by Bakhtin's circle. These two different streams of theory have significantly contributed to our understanding of gender issues in mathematics education during the last few decades.

Feminist Theories

Feminism is "both a theory of women's position in society and a political statement focused on gaining equal rights and opportunities for women and changing existing power relations between men and women" (DeMarrais & LeCompte, 1998, p. …

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