Different, Not Better: Gender Differences in Mathematics Learning and Achievement

By Geist, Eugene A.; King, Margaret | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Different, Not Better: Gender Differences in Mathematics Learning and Achievement


Geist, Eugene A., King, Margaret, Journal of Instructional Psychology


This article reviews the assessment data, literature and research on gender differences in mathematics. The question of whether boys are better at mathematics has been an issue in education for the past 5 years. The assumption is that there is a biological difference between boys and girls that make boys predisposed to do better in mathematics. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress disputes this assumption. The NAEP shows a gap of only 2 points between girls and boys and that has developed only in the last decade. This article reviews the literature and research on differences in boys and girls and concludes that there are differences in the way boys and girls learn and process mathematics and that this difference is not being taken into account by our educational system. Suggestions for individualizing the curriculum to meet the needs of both boys and girls in the mathematics classroom are included.

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Boys and girls are different. One is not better than the other; they are just different. As a result, we can expect that a difference exists in how boys and girls learning the way they learn. However, in many classrooms, the classroom climate, learning style, instructional style, and experiences offered to boys and girls may not address the needs of either gender. This tunnel-vision view that all students learn in the same way regardless of gender, may be doing a disservice to our students. The problem is that traditional methods of teaching have a negative impact on both girls and boys (Gurian, 1998, 2001, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b, 2005; Kindlon, 2000, 2006; Pipher, 1994; Pollack, 1999a).

The context of classroom climate, teacher attitudes, learning style, instructional style and experiences and activities offered to promote mathematics instruction with young children under the age of 8, need to be addressed to improve outcomes for both sexes. But, how can the needs of both boys and girls in mathematics programs be met?

Mathematics in Schools Today

Mathematics in many classrooms is mostly based on a traditional skills model (Becker, 2003; Bevan, 2001; Brodinsky, 1985; Gamoran, 2003). Too often this means memorization and rote recitation rather than active concept based learning. Imagine a classroom climate that acknowledges gender differences while considering individual styles and behaviors (Forgasz, Kloosterman, & Leder, 2004; Gavin & Reis, 2003). This classroom climate would be supportive of the mathematical learning needs of both boys and girls. An essential element in this approach is planning a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate, individualized, and gender responsive.

Many assumptions are made about differing abilities of girls and boys when it comes to mathematics. While on the 2005 NAEP, girls lag only about 3 points behind boys, this is only a recent phenomenon. In the 1970's, girls actually out performed boys in all but the 12th grade test (Bielinski & Davison, 2001; Carpenter, Brown, & Lindquist, 1988; Loveless & Coughlan, 2004; Perie, Grigg, & Dion, 2005). These assumptions about differing levels of ability pervade not just the classroom, but home.

Leedey, Alone, & Rank, (2003) found that many parents expect their young sons to develop mathematical skills earlier than parents of young girls expect their daughters to develop these skills Parents of older children believe that their daughters must work harder to attain good grades in mathematics, while parents of boys place more emphasis on the importance of learning mathematics. Parents, quite naturally, expect different things from their children, but their attitudes and expectations have a direct correlation to their children's achievement in mathematics (Campbell & Clewell, 1999; Campbell, Storo, & Educational Resources Information, 1996; Laster, 2004; Levi, 2000).

In the classroom, research has also shown that girls tend to feel less confident about their answers on tests and often express doubt about their performance. …

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Different, Not Better: Gender Differences in Mathematics Learning and Achievement
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