Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gender Games

Two issues of gender and games that have come up in the last weeks ...

1.  My oldest daughter reports some frustration that in one of her classes, the teacher divides them into teams every day to play games (no, this is not PE, so be kind) and that, every day, one of the iterations is boys versus girls.  This way of forming teams seems like no big deal to most people, and to me that's a pretty big deal. It bothers my daughter because most of her friends are boys, but even more so because it reinforces our society's idea that there's a huge inherent difference between boys and girls.  We wouldn't separate kids by short and tall, or straight hair versus curly hair -- so why does boys versus girls seem to "make sense" to so many people?

A radio show I listened to a long time ago made the point that even in addressing classes as "boys and girls" reinforces that preoccupation with gender roles.  Don't believe it?  Imagine replacing "boys and girls" with "white children and black children".  If describing the kids by gender doesn't make a difference--as many people seem to think it doesn't -- then why does it feel so funny to use race?  Only because when we separate boys and girls in this way, we are reminding ourselves that gender differences are crucial in ways that we're less comfortable reminding ourselves that race differences are crucial.  (Although if we were honest and not all "it's the end of racism", we'd have to admit that race plays a huge role in kids' experiences in school.  But that's a different blog post.)

The point is this:  dividing kids up by gender except for activities that require gender separation (bathroom use, for example) is just lazy; it makes some kids uncomfortable, and should make all of us wonder why this difference is the one we keep reinforcing in our schools.  Don't do it!

2.  It's the end of the school year and my kids are handing in portfolios; the assignment includes a short essay on "How I got here", namely, into a hyper-advanced college-level post-calculus class while still in high school.  This year's crop follows a trend I first noticed four years ago.  Virtually every boy says something like "The first time I really loved doing math was when I was competing against [my best friend/my classmates/my archenemy/another school] in [some math competition]."  Whether it's a simple race to finish multiplication tables or a full-blown Mathcounts meet, this experience is clearly one that has turned the boys I teach on to mathematics.  On the other hand, almost none of the girls even mentions competitions; when they do, it's almost always negative.  (One girl--now a math major--once wrote "I decided I hated math when my teacher had us play this stupid game called 'Around the World'.")  And my own daughter loves math but hates competition.  So there's some interesting data.

My friend Cathy O'Neill, aka mathbabe, wrote on this issue a couple of years back, "math contests kinda suck."  As a contest author, I have to agree with the majority of her argument: our society's reliance on math contests for identifying and encouraging mathematical talent discourages a lot of girls, who either don't like contests, or don't like doing math the way that you have to in order to be successful at most math contests.  That's why we need more math circles and other places where girls can get their hands dirty doing awesome mathematics--Chicago's new math research symposium is one such.  There's a place for math contests in the pantheon of cool, challenging math activities--but the pantheon has got to get a lot bigger than that.