Closing the Gap: Math Clubs for Girls and Boys

Rationale and structure

It is well documented that girls, by the time they reach middle school, become less interested in mathematics and less confident in their mathematical ability than their male counterparts. In fact, 82% of middle school girls do not see themselves as strong mathematical thinkers (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). This downward slide in confidence can restrict opportunities, both intellectual and economic, for young women. Research also documents that strong female role models and single sex academic experiences contribute to girls' higher achievement in mathematics and more positive attitudes about math (AAUW Report, 1992).

At TERC our work developing and piloting the Investigations in Number, Data, and Space™ K-5 math curriculum contributed to our interest in figuring out ways to support school communities in acknowledging and addressing equity issues in mathematics classrooms. Where we value discourse about mathematical ideas, teamwork, and developing multiple approaches to complex problems we also need to consciously support all voices. We believe that if we don't address equity issues then the goals of math reform will not be met. In June 1995, we received a grant award from the National Science Foundation to develop a model program of school based math clubs for girls.

Initially we developed a few successful girls' math clubs that met at lunch time, before or after school. Boys would have been included if they expressed interest. These clubs raised questions about how to include boys, parents and community members in thinking about how to improve the co-ed classroom environment. We realized interventions to "fix the girls" are too simplistic. How could we support communities in developing structures to learn about and address their biases? Teachers, parents, administrators, boys and girls all contribute to creating a gender fair environment at school. We refined our clubs to include parent and business partners, and in two of our three pilot sites we developed parallel single gender math clubs for girls and boys.

If the fact that girls can and do lose interest in mathematics is faced squarely, and students of both genders, their teachers and parents are included in the conversation about why this happens and what the ramifications can be, we believe the problem can be alleviated. Our experience demonstrates that single gender school based math clubs for girls and boys at the upper elementary level is an intervention that makes a difference.

In order to build models for these clubs that can be replicated nationally, we established inner city, rural, and suburban school- based math clubs for girls, to uncover the challenges and possibilities of these settings. Boys clubs were also established in the rural and suburban settings.

Club structure

Each community participated in developing an appropriate club structure for itself. All clubs were school-based to ensure that everyone could participate, not just those students whose parents were motivated to enroll and transport them. Clubs were led by classroom teachers with support from parent/community or business partnerships. Community members who do math in their work became involved and acted as role models for all students. Where teachers developed parallel girls' and boys' clubs, they met regularly during prep times to discuss pedagodgical issues as well as the equity issues that math clubs raised.

This model differs from other single gender learning environments because we used the single gender environment to make sense of and improve the climate in the co-ed classroom. Since the issues which single gender math clubs illuminate will vary from community to community, each community needs its own structures to support reflection about equity issues.

Some of the opportunities and issues clubs raised

The single gender club gave us an opportunity to explicitly communicate our high expectations for girls in mathematics. In our pilot sites we found that many girls participated more openly in all girls' classes. We talked with students frankly about this and asked them about why they don't participate to the same extent in the co-ed group. These discussions revealed peer dynamics we were not aware of previously. Also, it raised questions about whether a disproportionate amount of teacher attention is directed at boys for discipline as well as content issues.

Students reported a quiet culture of put downs and harassment between boys and girls which they said keeps girls quiet in the regular math class. After exposing this and talking about it with girls and boys, and after girls had a chance to participate in their own math clubs, we found they returned to the dual gender realm of the regular classroom with renewed confidence. Boys also became aware of the importance of treating girls with respect.

Teachers reported that girls and boys benefited tremendously from hosting women in mathematics as speakers. For many boys and some girls it was a new experience to meet professional accomplished women. (In some classes it surprised us that more parents of girls than boys seemed to be consciously exposing their children to non-traditional women.) In general there were more behavior issues in the boy's groups -- as one teacher put it there were "almost double the number of calling out instances initially than in the co-ed classrooms." This was significant for a number of reasons. Teachers became more aware of what the effect of this behavior is on quieter students. They also asked themselves whether a group of boys was absorbing an undue amount of attention over behavior issues at the expense of other students. Those boys participating in calling out behaviors became more aware of their actions because it bothered them that they couldn't hear in math club, and they noticed they were getting called on less because of the increased number of aggressive students in the class. Their teachers were able to use math club as a place to establish and communicate firm ground rules for participation which then carried over to the co-ed groups.

Girls and boys in math clubs reported feeling free to ask questions they might not ask in the co-ed environment such as, "Is it true that boys are better at math than girls?" Generally we addressed students' questions in the single gender groups and then in the co-ed groups as well. Students were clear that they would not have asked these questions at first in the co-ed groups though, because it didn't feel safe.

Finally, we used math clubs as an explicit opportunity to communicate to parents the importance of encouraging their children in mathematics. We had students bring math games home on a regular basis to play with family members. Many parents also visited math clubs in order to discuss the math they do in their work. Students were able to see first hand that significant mathematics is required in most jobs.

To learn more about the math we did in math clubs and to set up your own math club, please look at the Frequently Asked Questions section.

last modified July 1997
© Copyright 1997 TERC, All Rights Reserved.