Today I opened up the Sunday Seattle Times newspaper for a relaxing read with my morning coffee. I noticed a little “letter to the editor” in which a professor from the University of Washington responded to women who had responded to his article about women in the computer sciences fields. As a new computer coding teacher I was immediately intrigued. I googled Mr. Reges’ article and read it. My primary thought as I was reading through his long article was, “huh”. I know, not very intellectual, but I am firmly perplexed by his apparent position that men and women have different brains and so choose different careers.
I realize that the nature vs. nurture dialogue rages on and has for the past several thousand years but I was under the impression that the current brain research had debunked the idea that human brains are hardwired for one type of learning over another. I have been learning about current brain research as it specifically relates to math learning from the work of Jo Boaler and her colleagues at Stanford University. Don’t we now know that the brain is amazingly plastic? Human brains are born and immediately begin to absorb, learn from and respond to, in the form of synapse development and growth, their environment and stimulus.
Although it is limited, I think my own story as a math learner illustrates this new information quite well. I did not really attend preschool as a child. My mom was a teacher and my two younger sisters and I played at home for our early years. Our favorite toys in order of preference were: match box cars that we drove on the sand pile in the back yard, the zipline my dad built for us in that same back yard, Cuisenaire Rods and other blocks, our play kitchen that we made into a restaurant and our record player with the collection of American classic music. Oh! And we loved to read books and create weird experiments like riding down the stairs in cardboard boxes full of pillows. (Yes, we did get hurt. Good learning!) We had dolls and I think we played with them but I don’t really remember that until later. I remember loving school in first and second grade. But then I had a traumatic, negative experience with mathematics at the age of 8 and, while I continued to do well in math in terms of grades, I gave up on trying to understand mathematics from that time until I was in my early thirties. I learned to copy and regurgitate algorithms very well but could not apply them to any new situations.
In my early thirties, I had been teaching for a while and had a lot of confidence in my teaching abilities. I was open and unafraid to try something new. Since then, for the past twenty years I have had one positive experience after another that have opened my mind to a new way of thinking about mathematics and that have helped my brain grow. Now I would say that I am “good at math”, perhaps even better at open-ended, creative mathematical thinking than some of my teaching colleagues. My brain has grown and, while my past experiences taught me that I was “bad at math”, my new experiences have taught me that I am “good at math”.
And now I’m teaching coding. I learned to code this past summer so that I could teach this class. I’m not an expert. But it doesn’t matter. I am a guide and I have an outstanding curriculum, TechSmartKids, to use. I can encourage children to explore, to be innovative and to be creative in a new venue. I would not be here if my brain was a set, fixed set of “non-math” synapses.
When I read articles like Mr. Reges’ I just keep thinking that he is reinforcing his own fixed mindset world view with data that is conveniently agreeable. For example, he keeps siting test scores as confirmation that girls and boys brains are different, that they have a propensity toward one subject or another. But at the point of gathering test scores, it’s already too late. Children’s brains have already been experienced toward a certain type of learning by the time we start gathering testing data. The significant window of opportunity, pre-K through grade 5, closes down for most children WAY too early. As the mathfairy, purveyor of fun in maths, I must propose again that the problem lies in how we teach maths at an early age.
Mr. Reges, the reason women don’t code is because most women are told, both overtly and covertly, all their lives, from a very, very early age that they are good at one type of learning. And that boys are good at another type of learning. Even if girls never hear the message that they “can’t” do math, our society and culture at large constantly reinforces in small and large ways that “boys are better at math”. The tech companies and universities can keep working on their messaging and keep recruiting. I think that’s great. However, in my humble opinion, what really needs to change is how we message math to our preschool and primary age children. Math should be open, creative, exploratory and gender-neutral. Teachers and parents need to work to understanding their own math learning journey so that they can try their best not to perpetuate subtle ideas about who is good at math and who is not.
As my story illustrates, it is never too late to build new synapses in the brain or to grow as mathematical thinker. Let’s keep finding ways to build those brains so that we can see a day when we wouldn’t need articles like Mr. Reges’.