Barbie was right

As Teen Talk Barbie once said, “Math is hard.” Some researchers say our brains aren’t wired for math beyond counting; others blame differences between male and female learning styles. I’m with the guy who says it’s bad instruction.

About Joanne


  1. Ken Summers says:

    Bad instruction may be part of it, but it doesn’t explain all of it – observe the wide range of abilities in one class. Some people just don’t pick it up easily and have to work much harder to keep up. I think this is ingrained (not specifically genetic – just similar to how some people have an inherently poor sense of direction). Some also respond to different teaching methods.

    I was one of the lucky ones – math was always a breeze. On the other hand, my literature teachers practically had to beat me over the head with The Complete Works of Shakespeare and it still didn’t take. Fair’s fair, I guess.

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    Joanne is right on. If our elementary schools had numerate teachers and used clear, straightforward, well-organized textbooks like the Singapore ones, all of a sudden a lot of kids (regardless of gender) wouldn’t find math so hard any more. Of course, pigs will fly before those conditions are met…

  3. Some girls aren’t good at math.

    But some are:

    Elin Oxenhielm, a 22-year-old mathematics student at Stockholm University, may have solved part of one of the science’s great problems. Next week an article will be published revealing her solution for part of Hilbert’s 16th problem, Swedish news agency TT reports.

  4. First of all, as Bill Clinton would ask: Define Math?

    Barbie is right…. but then, Barbie is an inanimate object….

  5. Eh, I always thought math to be the easiest subject as it all fit together logically; indeed, once I got started in a particular subject, it was pretty easy to extend out the knowledge at the level I was at. For example, once the teacher showed us how to multiply: any-number of digit numbers by 1-digit-numbers, 2-digit by 2-digit, 3-digit by 2-digit, 3-digit by 3-digit, it was easy to generalize to any number of digits. I didn’t have to read anything extra.

    This was totally unlike other subjects, in which to see the connections between material one needed a much wider and deeper experience and knowledge.

    It’s true that bad teachers can give students untold difficulties in math when they don’t approach the subject methodically, but it’s far easier to fix than a lack of knowledge in literature or chemistry. Those require many more hours to get up to speed.

  6. Steve LaBonne says:

    meep, some people think that way naturally; most have to be taught to think that way. And that’s exactly what’s not happening. “New new math” was *intended* to teach that kind of thinking (we all know which road is paved with good intentions), but fails because it ignores the hierarchical, cumulative nature of the subject and because it expects students to “rediscover the wheel” without giving them the competence to do so.

  7. I’m really leery of any philosophy which ties difficulty in learning any particular discipline to physical characteristics, i.e., gender or skin color. Humans have a tendancy to adjust their observations to fit preconceived theories, and at present, all debate vanishes whenever someone can say something is “genetic”. There are far too many teachers who will take such studies to mean, “well, of course she has trouble with math. She’s a female.” Will the knowledge of such studies improve the quality of instruction? Probably not (in my opinion). On the other hand, it adds to the number of excuses the teacher, and the student, can call up.

  8. Wacky Hermit says:

    Math ability is, in my opinion, a lot like physical strength. Nobody is born physically strong; strength is built by regular exercise. Some people have more inborn potential to be physically strong than others, and some have the inclination and ability to be bodybuilders; but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should sit on the couch and never exercise because we weren’t born strong.

    I find that women actually do better in my college math classes overall than men do. My top ten students are usually split 50-50 between the genders, with the overall top scorer a female about 60% of the time. (This is true even in classes that are 75% male!) But in my bottom ten are typically 9 or 10 males, regardless of what the overall proportion of males is in the class. I’m convinced it’s because the women overall have better study skills and better social skills that allow them to seek help sooner.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with inborn math ability– that might have made a difference in Kindergarten, but by college, it’s definitely the study skills that make the grade.