To the Moon and Back

Just recently Katherine Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday.  If you are unaware, as too many are, who Katherine Johnson is, Google her and take the time to meet the woman behind the math that allowed American astronauts to reach space and eventually the moon.  Her’s is a story of perseverance in the face of both gender and race discrimination that eventually and fortunately brought her to a position of importance and respect.  She served as “the human calculator” for NASA in its early days of space travel and also served as an inspiration for black and female mathematicians of that era.

As a math teacher, I preached, to anyone who would listen, about the strengths and merits of young girls ability to grasp and apply math concepts.  Back then, I had been instrumental in developing a math curriculum for both enriching and accelerating the placement of 6th and 7th grade students.  It was immediately apparent that there was a large disparity between girls and boys in the placement.  Boys easily outnumbered the girls in having success in mathematics recognized by their teachers.  It was my opinion then and still is that if anything, we should be having a higher number of girls succeeding at math.  Math is the study of concepts that become apparent when numeric relationships are recognized.

Sorry guys, but women are far more relational in their reasoning than we are.  They also tend to be more visual and this is a valuable trait when a math student is trying to see the relationships behind the concepts that govern math.  That said, there should have been more girls being recommended and placed in those accelerated classes.  It became my quest to find them and to determine why they were not showing up in the first place.

Here comes my disclaimer.  I am not a formal researcher but rather an observer.  When I do need to research an issue, thank god for Google.  Still, even though I had no formal research to back me up, I firmly believed I could point at several reasons why girls were being overlooked.

I will tackle the easy one first as it is the most obvious and the easiest to fix.  Boys by nature are more aggressive than girls and will volunteer to answer a question even when they don’t have the answer.  They also tend to be the one with too much energy and to avoid that energy going south, teachers will tend to draw them into the conversation to help control their behavior.  Score two for the boys in the categories of recognition and involvement.  We need to bring girls into the class conversation evenly.

Next up is teaching style.  This area is much improved but also too often maligned by those on the outside.  Math and arithmetic are two different animals.  Math is a study while arithmetic is a skill.  For way too long, math in the first six to eight grades was approached as arithmetic and devoid of concept development.  It was taught from a left brain approach of rules and memorization.  I will not go into systematic details and differences, but concepts are more complex and require more variety in teaching style.  Not least of these variances is realizing that many children are more inclined to be right brain thinkers than left brain.  The left brain is more rote memorization and rule oriented while the right brain is more visual and concept oriented.  Early on I had observed that the students being recommended for accelerated placement in math were almost always involved in music classes.  No surprise that music and creativity reside in the right brain.  The girls that were being recommended for acceleration were also in those music classes.  Epiphany, if girls were by nature more visual than males, was it possible that left brain teaching techniques were leaving them a step behind to start the race.  Good news, as I stated earlier, this difference in teaching style is now widely understood and implemented by educators everywhere.  Score one for the girls getting an equal chance.

Finally the difficult one, culture.  We still don’t fully recognize the importance of the role mothers play in their daughter’s math success.  Though more documented in today’s culture, back when I was teaching if I asked a parent who helped with math homework, the answer was all too often dad.  The  mother’s response was often, “I tell them to ask their dad because I was never good at this.”  So there it was, that daughter who looked at her mother as a successful role model was left with the take away that math was seemingly not important to success but likely too hard anyway.

I will always point to and thank strong women who prove time and time again that they can “do the math” and stand as role models for every young women looking to be just as successful as every young man out there.  Mothers, please don’t send your daughter to dad every time she has a math question.  Own your role and possibly your daughter’s future success.

Happy birthday Katherine Johnson and thank you for never doubting yourself and always fighting for your place in the world.  Thanks to you, our world stretches at least to the moon and back.


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