Girls treat math like a talent, boys like a skill.

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In the last week, marching band practice started, and there have been orientations at my kids' schools, so it must be time for them to go back. That got me thinking about a big problem in math and science education. In elementary school, boys and girls are about even in their performance in math and science. By middle school, girls start to lag behind, and few women go on to pursue math in college. What is going on?

There are lots of answers to this question, but I'll explore a few over the next week. Think of this as the back-to-school portion of the blog.

One factor that leads girls to drop math is that boys and girls seem to differ in their beliefs about math. Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that people can have two different stances toward academic topics. Entity theorists treat academic topics as if they were talents. You either have them or you don't. So, you could be good at math or bad at math. If you're good at math, then you'll learn it. If you're bad at math, then at some point, you'll reach a type of math that goes beyond your abilities.

Incremental theorists treat math as a skill to be acquired. Stick with math, and eventually you'll get even the really hard stuff.

Dweck and her colleagues find that people who treat math (or any other academic subject) as a skill will stick with it longer and try harder when it gets difficult than when they treat it as a talent.

The way this affects boys and girls is that Dweck has collected evidence that boys and girls get different feedback about math from early on in their schooling. Eventually, everyone hits a topic in math that they struggle with. When talking to girls, teachers are likely to emphasize that math is hard. Talking about math as being difficult makes it sound like something that either you can do or you can't.

Boys tend to get feedback that treats math as a skill to be acquired. When they hit a hard topic, they are told to try harder and they'll eventually get it.

Because girls are more likely than boys to get feedback that treats math as a talent, they are more likely to end up with an entity theory of math. The truly hard stuff in math comes in middle school, when kids are first exposed to algebra and geometry and later trigonometry and calculus. Eventually, one of these topics is going to derail everyone, at least for a while. Because of their beliefs about math, then, girls are more likely than boys to conclude that they have reached the limits of their talent and give up.

That isn't the whole story, of course, and I'll pick up on this in my next post.