Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Are boys really better at math and girls at languages?

There's a common belief that boys are better at math than girls. Based on my personal experience with Lesley-Anne and Andre, I had accepted this old adage without question.

Well, guess what? A study by a team of scientists conducted on SAT and math scores from 7 million students in the US found that this belief is actually fiction, not fact. Whether they compared average performance, the scores of gifted children or students' ability to solve complex math problems, girls measured up to boys.

So why does this misconception persist? According to University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde, the study’s leader, cultural beliefs like this are “incredibly influential.” “Because if your mom or your teacher thinks you can’t do math, that can have a big impact on your math self concept.”

It makes sense. Sometimes when a friend of mine says her daughter is struggling with math, I spout this glib reply, "Girls lah, they're not as good in math." So slap me now because apparently, not only am I wrong, I'm reinforcing the stereotype and adding to the self-fulfilling prophecy of these young girls - "I can't do this math paper because I'm a girl, I'm not as good in math. I'm not as good in math, so I won't be able to do this math paper." Doh!

I think it has partly to do with our eagerness to embrace the left brain-right brain theory, ie boys are more inclined towards left-brain work (logical, analytical) and girls are more right-brained (creative). That's why along with the boys-are-better-at-math belief, we have the girls-are-better-at-languages theory.

But you know what? The part about girls being better at languages IS true, at least in the early years. Researchers have found that this is due to the way words are processed. Girls use the language decoding portion of their brains, enabling them to decipher abstract information. Boys however, rely more on vision and hearing to process information.

Doug Burman, an aneuroscientist at Northwestern University’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston explained, “For girls, it doesn’t matter whether you are reading or hearing the words, the information gets converted into an abstract meaning, an abstract thought. For boys, the research suggests it’s really going to be very important whether they’re hearing or reading words. That is going to determine how well they’re processing the language.” These results explain why girls consistently score higher than boys at language tests. But this advantage may taper off after secondary school.

While these findings warrant a separate post on catering to the different learning styles of boys and girls, for now, the lesson here is not to be so quick to dismiss your kids' learning difficulties as biological. Everyone is different. I guess I should have realised this from my own experience - I don't fall clearly under the right brian or left brain style. I'm reasonably good at math but suck at science. People tell me my English is pretty "powderful" but I couldn't learn Chinese to save my life.

So what does this mean? It means that human beings are so complex that we can't compartmentalise them into neat boxes. Even if something holds true for the vast majority, it may not hold true for us. We all have our unique strengths and weaknesses that are largely tied to our interests. If our kids are struggling in certain subjects, let's not be so quick to believe that these are beyond their abilities and instead, try to stir up interest in those subjects. Evidence has shown again and again that the kids who tend to do well eventually are not necessarily those who have the best talents but those who keep persevering.


Veronica_L said...

To think I used to struggle with math as a child. My maths teacher called me "hopeless". I grew up with the stereotype "Girls are good at language, boys are not but they are good at math". Which I used to comfort myself on my horrible math scores.

My niece is also so horrible at maths. She comes back with a 60/100 every time without fail which drives my brother crazy because he used to ace his math when he was in school.

Maybe, just maybe this works for my family. Or perhaps it was the stereotype that caused it.

monlim said...

Veronica: I think what the study says is that whether you're good or weak in math is due to differences among individuals rather than due to gender. Anyway, just to be safe, it's better not to use this as a justification for bad grades like I have :)

Albert said...

It is good to me. I also have a mistake at this. I find my daughter is not interested in Math. I know some boys really love to study math, science and history, but my daughter doesn't like these. She only enjoys to read fiction. When I read books and know some 5 years old kids may know how to use multiplication, I try to teach her. I find she cannot understand it. I think she is quite poor at math while I instruct her. But it is not true. She always keeps top at school. Her math always is better than other subjects. For girls, it is just hard to let them be interested in math. Actually my daughter doesn't like any subject. She just likes to read fictions and watch dramas. But she knows her responsibility, so she has to study so as to keep on top at school.She feels quite sad when she knows no much award at current school. She still can work hard after we explain her learning objective. She know she has to study so as to enroll good secondary school and get nice job in future.

lyx said...

Yeah! I am better in languages but my 8-year-old male cousin is better in math! All the top-scorers for math in my class are boys but the top-scorers in english are all females.

danlow said...

My math & SC rocks but my EL &CL sux....

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