• Educating Gender

Making the Learning of Math (and Education in General) More Elegant


Somewhere along the dotted line of human history, we imagined that math was a subject that was known before it was taught. Inherent, predestined, approachable by the few and mastered by even fewer.  We imagined some magical region of the brain where math “lived.” Added into our popular imagination, it was almost always in the male brain; a body with a penis was much more capable of excellence in math education than one with a vagina. There was an elitist and equally macho view of the mathematician.

It is predictable that this would be the case given that women were shut out from formal math and science education for so long and society deemed it unnecessary and a waste of their (and everyone else’s) time. Since they did not “know” it, the argument was that they could not do it and if there is something biological about them not knowing it, why should they do it.  And around and around we go.

...a body with a penis was much more capable of excellence in math education than one with a vagina.There was an elitist and equally macho view of the mathematician.

As late as the 1970s, one of the more frequently used instruments to measure high school students’ interests for possible careers was the Strong Vocational Interest Bank. This questionnaire and surveys like it had a clear gender agenda, with separate scales for men and women, pointing men in the direction of such fields as business management, medicine, and engineering where women are guided to such careers as “Executive Housekeeper.”  These scales also made clear presumptions concerning areas of study and interest, such as mathematics which, of course, creates a cyclical effect. “...the men’s profile contained a basic interest scale for mathematics while the analogous scale on the women’s form was for numbers.  In other words, it was assumed that men do mathematics and women count.”* (See source below)

According to the cognitive neuroscientist Stanislav Deheane, there is actually nothing innate or genetic about learning mathematics. There is evidence that humans are wired to understand numbers, but the process of learning math is actually counter intuitive to how the brain works. It is by definition, as opposed to many language skills, something we must learn, practice, master, and then learn some more.

What Deheane also expresses in his brilliant work, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, is that while some learning activation around math is localized to particular parts of the brain, namely the prefrontal region, a number of different areas, which include traditional language centers, are also necessary in order to learn mathematics. “Neither an isolated neuron, nor cortical column, nor even a cerebral area can ‘think’.  Only by combining the capacities of several million neurons, spread out in distributed cortical and subcortical networks does the brain attain an impressive computational power.”**(See source below)

“...the men’s profile contained a basic interest scale for mathematics while the analogous scale on the women’s form was for numbers.  In other words, it was assumed that men do mathematics and women count.”

All students would benefit from an educational system less compartmentalized, much less laden with gender assumptions, and with a type of elegance to its design and execution which relied on accessing multiple subject areas and therefore, accessing students’ various cognitive strengths. Constructed and developed thought should look far less binary and far more holistic. Instead of getting students to do math, we should be developing programs that help them understand and conceptualize what they are learning through multiple lenses.

Having teachers engage with professional development which clearly gives them insights into what we know about the way that human beings learn would also be helpful. FMRIs, electroencephalography and brain scans are not divided into blue or pink. Such vital information would help teachers understand that their students’ whole brains need to be engaged, regardless of gender.


*Reed, D. & Fox, L.H. (2007). Gender equity in testing and assessment. In: Klein, S.S. (2007). Handbook for Achieving Equity Through Education. New York, NY: Routledge.


**Daheane, S. (2001) The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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