10-year-olds already showing gender differences in Maths

This article was published in La Vanguardia on the 9th December 2020.

The gender gap in our country is already evident among 10-year-old schoolchildren, who perform at different levels in Mathematics. Spain is one of the countries with the greatest difference between boys and girls and its inequality is almost double the average of the OECD countries and is above the average of the European Union.

The latest TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) report, which assesses the knowledge of mathematics and science in 4th grade students from 58 countries around the world, indicates that, in general, Spain ranks in this subject in 502 points, 11 points below the European average, and 25 below that of developed countries (led by Asians). In science, the score is 511, 3 points below Europe and 15 points below the OECD.

"It is worrying that primary school students already see mathematics as something alien." Luis J. Rodríguez. Royal Mathematical Society

With respect to gender, the difference between Spanish girls and boys is 15 points in favor of men, who also have fewer students in the group of laggards and more in the group of excellent ones. "It is very worrying that 4th grade students see mathematics as something alien, perhaps too competitive, and the idea that they can be competent or good in the future is weakened," says Luis J. Rodríguez, director of the Commission of Education of the Royal Mathematical Society, which blames the situation on outdated curricula, based not on deep and reflective learning about mathematics, but on extensive, rote concepts, disconnected from each other and with methodologies that promote competitiveness, something that takes girls away from motivation. "We dedicate little time to reasoning and much to procedure, that is, they memorize formulas but do not know how to apply them." In addition, there is a lack of training for teachers and more resources.

The causes that would explain the gender gap do not occur in the field of science, also evaluated by TIMSS. Here, gender inequality is negligible, except in the physics block, where again there is a gap, estimated at 8 points.

“It is true that in mathematics there is a gender gap in all countries –except in Japan, where girls outnumber boys–, but the inequality in Spain of 15 points is once again observed compared to the 2015 edition and exceeds the figure of the EU (11) and the OECD (9) ”, clarifies Rodríguez.

If we look at the specific result by performance groups, there are also notable differences. 37% of Spanish girls do not reach an intermediate level, 5 points more than boys, and 9 compared to OECD girls in the same grade. At the opposite extreme, high and advanced, only 22% of girls appear, compared to 31% of Spanish boys. More serious is the comparison with OECD students, with parameters of 38% in girls and 43% in boys.

Only Portugal, Canada and Cyprus are worse off. In Catalonia, which like other autonomous communities analyzes its data in a specific way, 17% of excellent girls are, still lower than the Spanish average and far from 38% of the OECD. Furthermore, 42% do not even reach an intermediate level.

In the expanded sample of Catalonia, the data show worrying figures, with the highest percentage of Spanish students lagging behind in mathematics (38%) and science (33%). It also has fewer students of excellence (22% in mathematics and 27% in science) when in Spain and in the rest of the world between 3 and 4 students out of ten are outstanding.

White Paper on Mathematics

A bad teacher, causes irreparable damage to the students

Mathematics training should only be given by well-trained professionals to avoid irreparable harm to students ”. The warning comes from the more than 60 mathematicians who participated in the preparation of the White Book of Mathematics, an extensive analysis of the situation in this field of knowledge in Spain –presented at the end of October– and which denounces “serious problems” in the training of teachers who teach mathematics. Among other things, because there are hardly any mathematicians in that group. They neither see teaching as something attractive, nor is it easy for them to access the master's degree to teach secondary school because their academic grades are lower than those who study less complex careers. And, worse still, they say, is the "weak" mathematical knowledge of elementary school teachers, who are the ones that lay the foundation for students' interest and mathematical ability. For this reason, the White Paper proposes, among other measures, to require that students have completed high school mathematics in order to study the master's degree, in addition to continuing training plans for mathematics teachers and that priority be given to mathematics graduates at the time to access the master to be secondary school teachers. Mayte Rius

Rodríguez clarifies that the socioeconomic and cultural context weighs on the results. Historical literacy rates, the type of student profile, the variety in family and cultural origin, recent immersion in the country, ignorance of the language ... "are aspects that differentiate Castilla y León, with high rates of learning, of the results of Catalonia ”.

In contrast, there are not too many differences in educational policy; in any case, the Generalitat is making progress in developing a competency curriculum in which reasoning, communication and problem solving prevail.

For Rodríguez, students who reach a high level of complexity are relegated in classes. "Progress has been made in lagging students but at the cost of not serving students with more ability and it is a shame the loss of attention to mathematical ability, which is what makes a country move forward. In his opinion, it would be necessary to bet on giving more resources and tools to teachers and continuously improving their training so that they can serve all students. "And if he cannot, at least, propose an individualized job."

The RSM, together with other mathematical societies, will propose to the Government, which is preparing a new curriculum, the fundamental ideas in the field of mathematics, in the hope that, together with better teacher training, these figures will be reversed.