Math for Kids: Influence of Social Messages on Difference in Performance between Boys and Girls

Behaviorism (or the behaviorist theory) emerged in the 1900s, putting a new spin on our understanding of how the world functions. This theory upholds the tenet that all behaviors are learned through one’s interaction with the environment. While there have been arguments for and against the theory, it certainly holds true when it comes to children. 

Children are impressionable characters easily influenced by their immediate surroundings. Thus, social messages they’re exposed to can either make or mar their attitudes towards a concept. For instance, if a child is told that math for second graders is complex, they may become less enthusiastic about it, which could potentially affect their performance in the subject. 

In line with this, we will examine a popular trope/ hypothesis that infers that boys are better than girls at math. We will equally explore the influence this social message has on the performance of both boys and girls.  

Social Messages’ Influence on the Performance of Boys and Girls 

Overall, minimal differences exist in the performance of both boys and girls in math. At basic levels (preschool and elementary), boys and girls are likely to perform similarly on math tests. As time goes on and they advance to higher levels such as high school and college, we begin to see more consistent and visible differences in their performance. 

In their recent study, professors Alex Eble and Feng Hu shed further light on these differences and their causes. The study was based on the data on children in Chinese middle schools whose parents may or may not believe that boys are inherently better at math than girls. 

The paper identified the role of homophily in spreading this social message. Oxford Dictionary defines this concept as “the tendency for people to seek out or be attracted to those who are similar to themselves.”

According to Eble and Hu, girls assigned to classrooms with more female peers whose parents uphold this belief would be impacted more significantly than if they had been assigned to a similar class with more male peers. In the same vein, the boys’ beliefs are more likely to be influenced by their male peers rather than their female peers. Put simply, it means that children associate and are influenced by friends with whom they share a similar identity. 

So how does this impact their performance in math? It’s simple. Boys assigned to a classroom where a majority of their peers hold this belief will automatically score higher on midterm tests. On the other hand, girls assigned to a classroom where a majority of their peers hold this same belief will score significantly lower on the same tests. 

This is because the social message being passed has caused a form of subtle conditioning, causing kids to have less positive math attitudes. Even if they take extra math classes or math lessons, it’s likely that they would still have higher levels of math anxiety and feel less confident about their math skills. 

Another study carried out by Melanie Hargreaves, Matt Homer, and Bronwen Swinnerton further shed light on possible reasons for such differences. 

To begin with, many experts are of the opinion that boys and girls tackle math in different ways. For instance, it’s believed that girls are more likely to solve math problems using conventional strategies, rules, algorithms, and whatnot. On the other hand, boys tend to be autonomous and use unconventional and independent strategies to arrive at a solution. As a result, further studies show that boys do better on the most difficult questions, while girls may outperform boys on easier questions. These studies also suggest that boys do better at geometry, word problems, and general math problems with less well-defined solutions. On the other hand, girls are better at algebra and computational problems (i.e., math problems with well-defined solutions). 

Hargreaves, Homer, and Swinnerton also explored the role that social messages and conditioning play in math performances. Typically, when it comes to learning online math for kids, there’s a general misconception that math is a purely masculine talent. Thus, girls are often discouraged from “trying too hard” at math which affects their motivation levels as well as teacher/pupil expectations. Consequently, since girls aren’t expected to perform as well as boys, they may end up not doing as well as they have otherwise done. 

In line with this, the paper also suggests that Stereotype Threat Theory (STT) might be another possible reason for the differences in performance between boys and girls. Put simply, stereotype threat happens when a group is subjected to a negative stereotype, which then weakens the group’s performance. For instance, since math is often considered a male domain, research suggests that if girls are placed in a math test competition alongside boys, this may significantly lower the girls’ performance. This is because girls perceive boys as a threat due to social conditioning, and when the threat is high, it diminishes their ability to apply problem-solving strategies and tackle math questions. 

However, it’s important to note that studies surrounding STT have been mostly limited to students in universities. Not much research has been conducted to ascertain if this phenomenon is prevalent among younger lower-level students. 

Moving Beyond Social Conditioning 

Having examined the effects of social messages/conditioning on math performance amongst boys and girls, it’s essential that we play an individual and collective role in moving beyond these stereotypes and bridging the performance gap. 

This can be done through the promotion of inclusive math courses where biases aren’t allowed to fester amongst students. In the same vein, when teaching math for kids, explain to them that the success in the subject isn’t related to just one’s gender. Anyone – male or female – can learn and succeed in math. It’s also crucial to stress the importance of self-confidence in mathematics regardless of gender differences. 

While it may take a while to unlearn and erase the effects of conditioning, these little efforts will eventually yield fruit.

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Sarah Meere
Sarah Meere
Executive Editor

Sarah looks after corporate enquiries and relationships for UKFilmPremieres, CelebEvents, ShowbizGossip, Celeb Management brands for the MarkMeets Group. Sarah works for numerous media brands across the UK.


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