Tuesday Tips: Girls and Math & Science


Since my last post about multiplication tables I have been thinking about how similar one of my daughters is to me when it comes to learning maths and science. She lately has had a defeatist attitude pop up using the famous phrase: “je suis nulle en math”, (I am just terrible at maths). I think it is a ridiculous thing for a 9-year-old to say, as who knows how her talents are still going to develop. But, if I remember rightly, I said exactly the same thing. Turns out it was a self fulfilling prophecy: as a kid I was terrible at maths and only started to enjoy it when I began working.

I have been reading up on why girls are still under-performing versus boys in maths and came across this interesting article. Girls still seem to lack confidence when it comes to maths (and science), even in the year 2015, and I wanted to write down a couple of tips I am trying to use on how to counteract that!

  • I think, as a mother, being a role model is key. I don’t tell my girls that I was terrible at maths at school, but I tell them that I now love it and use it every day.
  • I also want to make sure that they know that a woman is as capable at using maths in an everyday situation as a man. Maybe this is a silly example, but say we are in a restaurant and the bill arrives, I don’t ask a man at the table to break it down or check it, I do it myself.
  • Make math fun, as solving a math exercise is like solving a riddle or figuring out the facts like a spy. When kids start understanding the logical patterns of math and how similar they are to a game, they seem to enjoy it more.
  • Buy science books for girls as much as you would for boys. Some of my favourites are Older than the Stars and Big Questions from Little People (though these are more science book than purely math books). For older children, a friend of mine recommended Feynman, a comic book about the life of the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. (I have not found any fun maths books).
  • Whatever job you have, you very likely use maths on a daily basis: a carpenter uses it to measure, a bookkeeper to balance his books, a scientist to figure out the beginnings of the universe, a ballet dancer to calculate the amount of steps it takes her to dance across the scene (I think ;)) so I try to see the numbers in everyday life and to play around with those numbers with the kids.
  • This is just for New Yorkers, but apparently the Museum of Mathematics is brilliant and every child walking out of it is convinced they want to become a mathematician.

This is all I can come up with, but I do think it is an interesting subject, so I would love to hear your views and tips!

– Emilie

PS. After re-reading this post, I do want to point out that though I am focusing on girls, but of course the majority of these tips are applicable to boys too. 



Comments (20)

May 26, 2015

Emilie, thank you for sharing your tips and experience. As a person who failed many a math class herself, I think the most important thing that parents can do to help their children with math (or any subject) is to not gloss over or falsely encourage your children when you can see they are struggling. Acknowledge that they’re struggling and try to find a way to help them that sees the math problem from their point of view. My problem is not that I’m bad at math, indeed I’m sure I could have been great at it if I’d had the problems explained to me in a way that made sense to me. It wasn’t until I took Economics as a college student that I realized that if something is explained to me in a logical, real world way that I could visualize (instead of just throwing graphs, formulas, and charts at me), I could totally understand the concept.

I believe that one of the reasons I failed so many math classes as a young adult was because I come from an overachieving family and I was too scared and intimidated to admit to anyone that I was having problems understanding the work. But math is one of those subjects where if you failed one course, you’re probably going to fail all subsequent courses because the material is all based on a foundation. It’s not like history where if you didn’t study European history, you can’t possibly understand Native American history or something. In math, you need to really learn the concepts and feel comfortable with them to move forward and do well. Recognizing the problem early on and getting the support you need is vital. This is the main thing that parents should understand, I think.

May 26, 2015

Kiana your story very much resonates with me as I grew up surrounded by physicists and computer scientists and I think I “gave up” because i could not compete and possibly analysed mathematical problems in a different way to my brothers.

May 26, 2015

Anno has made lots of great picture books that are math related, and the concepts are presented like a game or puzzle. Really fun and I know many of his titles are also available in French.

Lauren Hogarth
May 26, 2015

Hi Emilie,
I grew up thinking ” je suis nulle en maths” too. My brother was a maths wizard (jumped a class in France and passed his baccalaureat D very young with a mention…) . I passed my baccalaureat (jsut) still thinking that I was rubbish. Years later, I work as a career coach in schools and what I say to young people is that maths in school is made up of two entities: numeracy and boring maths (geometry, probabalities , trigonometry…) It is not because one does not muster the boring bit that they are all together rubbish at maths! They might be (just like me) really good at numeracy but find that probabilities are a mystery. Young people should be encouraged to understand what their strengths are from a young age and be able to accept that we don’t all have the same skills and strengths. We should value this diversity of skills.

May 26, 2015

I always love your posts, Emilie. As a mom to a daughter, I appreciate how thoughtfully you raise yours and the topics for consideration you have opened up to me (my daughter is a bit younger than your youngest). Thanks, as always, for the food for thought! — Michelle

May 26, 2015

As a mom of an engineering/archeticture/math centric boy any of the David Macaulaly books, including The Way Things Work illustrated by him, are great books visually and story wise.

We also find opportunities in the real world to address math problems. For example when he was 6, he noted a stack of pipes that was 4 high and 5 across. It was a light bulb moment for him, when he realized that 4 fives equal 20. We find ourselves exploiting situations like that all of the time.

There is an awesome app called Dragon Box that teaches algebra in a fun non-threatening way. There are two versions. One for younger children and one for older. I highly recommend them.

May 26, 2015

There is such a thing as dyscalculia. It’s worth reading up on it to see if your child might have it.

May 26, 2015

“365 Penguins” illustrated by Joelle Jolivet, do you know this book? It’s a great story and so fun for maths calculus. We’ve loved it!

May 26, 2015

Love that one, it’s an excellent book!

Susan M.
May 26, 2015

This topic really resonates. I’m determined to have math and science be central to our children’s upbringing. I’m bringing up a boy and girl (5 and 2), and am trying not to make it gender specific. We raid the public library every week, and in addition to fiction books, we get several non-fiction, especially ones dealing with science and math. These might be short biology books about the human body or how weather works, and so on. Many fiction books incorporate counting (addition and subtraction), either directly or more subtly, allowing the adult to point it out and get the child to observe and calculate. Nature walks and hands-on children’s museums offer interactive encounters. Dance and piano and even the steady beat and other kinds of beating and drumming with percussion instruments bring out counting and calculating. I like how math and science can be enjoyed in the arts, and not just relegated to a world of robots or legos (which are fun, of course, but not always appealing to some children). I just got some Melissa and Doug blocks which come in many sizes and shapes, allowing me to teach geometry and fractions, as well as letting the kids enjoy building more. For birthdays, my son has been getting junior National Geographic books on topics of interest to him: volcanoes, space, and such. My daughter will be ready for these soon and will receive her own science books too as gifts so that she doesn’t think it’s just for boys. My Christmas gift plan is to get them both a toy cash register and cash as I’ve read that it has a huge fun and long-lasting fun factor, and allows kids to do all kinds of calculating while playing store. This game can be carried over into the actual grocery store with older kids and shopping. Same with baking and cooking. My son and daughter love all of these activities, so I’m hoping not to make math into something dreaded but rather fun and useful and in constant use in our lives. I’m excited to read about the aps and the book suggestions. They’ll be good for the future.

Sarah H
May 26, 2015

A Mighty Girl website is a great resource if you are looking for toys and books to encourage a love of maths and science in girls of all ages. Lots of inspiring stories and female heroes as well.

May 26, 2015

I only have boys, so the direct issue doesn’t pertain to me. But what does is teaching my boys that girls are just as good as they are at whatever–running, math, science, etc… I think that women do ourselves a disservice when we talk bad about ourselves in front of our boys, as well as our girls. True change will only come when men recognize us as equals, and that will only happen when boys are taught that girls are just as good. I, for one, was terrible at math after middle-school. But I’m not going to tell my boys that. I’m going to let them think their mama is amazing at everything (until they figure out otherwise! Which they will, so why should I say?).

May 26, 2015

Take a look at this brilliant article about encouraging kids in maths. Written by a child psychiatrist but full of common sense tips

Clare Hewitt
May 26, 2015

I’ve just had to give up work as a Primary school teacher in England as my family has grown to four with baby twins… More girls as well! This topic was an area I focused upon as part of my professional development. Small but deeply imbedding causes of girls’ poor relationships with maths are such things as parents seeing themselves as having particular roles with homework (Mums help with literacy and Dads with maths). So many Parents’ Evenings was I told by the mums that they did not get involved with Maths homework! Also, Maths answers in class are usually right or wrong. Typically, girls hate to get things wrong in front of their teacher or their peers whereas boys tend to be more risk takers and therefore join in more readily in lessons. As for me now, I have thought often as to how myself, the parent, can ensure my girls – my oldest being 6- grow up with confidence. Make maths fun, spot patterns as they’re everywhere, establish that it’s ok to get it wrong and show how getting it wrong can actually make you clearer on why it’s right. Playing Lego with girls is a simple start as well as those super magnetic construction kits. Girls start well in Maths at a young age as they’re diligent and hardworking and keen to please… Once more deeper understanding and abstract ideas come into play, that is when they lose their grip often and need most encouragement and enthusiasm. Mums and female teachers play a huge role in how a girl approaches this subject. Bravo Emilie, for bringing up this topic! Apologies for the long comment!

May 27, 2015

Don’t apologise! This is super helpful!

May 27, 2015

Dear Emilie,

I started reading “Math doesn’t suck” by Danica McKellar (you might remember her from The Wonder Years).
It might be directed at older girls, but maybe an option in a few years. Also (sorry, sounds corny) her life is quite an inspiration:beautiful girl actress (successful) and mathematician. I liked that, maybe your girls do too.

May 27, 2015

really like this post and comments – my first starting school this september – I never thought about getting them started numerically – by playing and introducing numerical puzzles etc but this has got me thinking it would be a good idea to get started – thank you …

May 28, 2015

Emilie, you girls might really enjoy these…they are math books, but read like a story! My children love them. The books span from kindergarten level math all the way through high school…all centered around the character Fred! It’s really quite brilliant.

May 30, 2015

Thank you! Never heard of them so will have a look now! x

July 6, 2015

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