Sex, Lies, and Word Problems
Cathery Yeh, posted April 24, 2017 —
Inspired by Anita Bright’s work
(2016), my preservice teachers and I had been analyzing the “hidden messages”
in K–grade 6 textbooks and were surprised by what we found. Let’s start with a series
of problems that a preservice teacher identified in the textbook Math Expressions, which was being used
in her fifth-grade fractions and decimals unit:
What do you notice? What is
normalized and valued in these problems? We had the opportunity to review many
more word problems in this textbook, and the examples above represent typical
patterns in word problems we reviewed. Contexts related to looking pretty,
being helpful, and being a homemaker were attached to problems with girls’
names; problems with boys’ names reinforced athleticism, competition, and masculinity.
Any one of these scenarios are unproblematic of and by themselves, but when looking
at patterns across several problems, we see a consistent message about gender
normativity—the idea that there is only one way to be a boy and another,
different way to be a girl.
In the rare instances when we found a
gender-fluid problem (e.g., David’s dad baked a dozen cookies to share with
him, his sister, and his mom), the problem continued to conflate gender with a
heterosexual identity. As a class, we could not find problems involving nonnuclear
families (e.g., two moms, a single dad) or gender nonconforming characters
(e.g., John buying a doll at the store).
What happens when gender is seen and understood
as fixed and dichotomous? A restrictive notion of gender has an adverse impact
on all students. Gender socialization
and stereotypes influence students’ impressions of what is acceptable, and they
shape performance, STEM-based participation patterns, and violence (Barnett and
Rivers 2005; Kosciw et al. 2014; Rands 2009).
The 2013 National School Climate
Survey found that 90 percent of gender variant students were verbally harassed
and more than half reported gender-based physical violence in the past year
(Kosciw et al. 2014). Students who are perceived to be gender nonconforming are
significantly more likely than their peers to be harassed and assaulted at
school (Kosciw et al. 2014).
Genderism and heteronormativity are
not the only hidden message in word problems. We have found that almost all
word problems have hidden messages; issues of classism, racism, and consumerism
are rampant. How many math problems can you identify in your school curriculum
that perpetuate competition and individualism (e.g., “Which boy made the
greater fraction of his free throws?”) versus collectivism and community (e.g.,
“What can we achieve working together?”)
Schools send powerful messages to our
students about what is valued and whose knowledge and experiences are deemed
important. These messages have such deep historical and cultural roots that we
often don’t even notice them. But mathematics word problems could serve as a
vehicle for students to analyze privilege and oppression, such as analyzing the
gender pay gap or the differences in the rate of hate crimes and police
brutality between transgender and cisgender populations.
realize my observations are limited by my own worldviews as a cisgender female,
a teacher, and a mother. My
goal for writing is selfish in that I still have much to learn as an educator.
I hope this series of posts encourages conversations about how we can collectively
create mathematics learning spaces that are humanizing and welcoming for
students learning disciplinary practices while we also embrace and leverage the
diversity of children and families we serve.
messages are found in the mathematical word problems in your textbook? How have
you reframed these problems to better reflect the diversity of the students and
families we serve? We want to hear from you. Post your ideas in the comments
below or share your thoughts on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM using #TCMtalk.
Join us on May 8, 2017, when we discuss the third blog
post in this series, teachers’ choices about number and language while
implementing mathematical tasks.
Rosalind, and Caryl Rivers. 2005. Same Difference:
How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.
New York: Basic Books.
Bright, Anita. 2016. “Education for Whom?
Word Problems as Carriers of Cultural Values.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education 15 (1): 6–22.
Indigo. 2011. “Snips and Snails and Puppy Dogs’ Tails: Genderism and Mathematics
Education.” For the Learning of
Mathematics 31, no. 2 (July): 27–31.
Joseph G., Emily A. Greytak, Neal A. Palmer, and Madelyn J. Boesen. 2014. “The
2013 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,
and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools.” Research report. New York: Gay,
Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Kathleen E. 2009. Considering Transgender People in Education: A Gender-Complex
Approach. Journal of Teacher Education
60 (4): 419–31.
Cathery Yeh is an assistant professor
in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University. She is the lead
author of the newly released NCTM book Reimagining
the Mathematics Classroom: Creating and Sustaining Productive Learning
Environments. Her work focuses on creating classroom spaces for generative
learning, agency, community, and collective praxis.
This is a great article. A while ago I went through my ratio and proportion worksheets to make sure they didn't split a class into boys and girls. There are so many other ways we can split people, and if it helps a gender-creative student feel less left out, it's worth it.
Jane, please share some of your examples. It would be great if we can generate a repository of problems that challenge genderism.
Not sure if this will help your collection but here are some examples:
I include. same-gender pairs:
2) Cynthia and Anne had dinner at a fancy restaurant and the bill came to $85, with tax included. They decide to tip 18% on the $85
a) How much do they pay in tip?
b) If they then split the bill, how much does each pay?
I opt avoid the boy/girl split - so instead of the class ratio of boys to girls is 3:8, I might have:
I. The Comet Argyle has a population of alien space worms. 3783 are spotted worms and 6984 are plaid worms. What is the ratio of plaid worms to spotted worms?
2. The ratio of leaders to followers in a dance class is 3:2. (In a partnered dance class, a set of partners consists of one person who dances lead and one who dances follow).
a) If the class has 15 people, how people dance lead?
Thank you for pointing out the rigidity in regards to the gender roles of most textbooks. It is a subtle but pervasive issue that impacts gender identity in the mathematics classroom.
I aapreciate that the word problem examples that you have selected from the textbook represent operator, part-whole, as well as area/array interpretations. I call that progress! But I know that this isn't the focus of your post here.
The fact that girls' names are associated with ribbons is less problematic to me than the fact that the reference is ignorantly done. It is reasonable to state that there are 9 free throws offered and 5 are successful. In no case could you buy, measure, or cut ribbon 5/9 of a yard long or 4/7 of a yard long. Sure, you could figure out 5/9 of a yard by unitizing 4 inches, but the store would never cut and sell you a piece 5/9 of a yard long. Furthermore, how would you wear a scarf that was 20" (5/9 yd) by 20.6" (4/7 yd) and for what reason would you need to measure it to that level of precision?
The problem here is more than an academic one. First of all, it implies that ribbons are even a thing that concerns girls. Girls who like ribbons in their hair do not tie them anymore - they buy them already tied and mounted on barrettes or headbands. In effect, they have no connection to ribbons as a hands-on activity or task. And even if they do, again they are not interested in the level of precision required by the "task." Second, by generating examples that have no meaning in reality and likely not to the intended audience of girls, while maintaining meaning in the examples ascribed to boys (for ill or for naught), the disrespect for girls' interests and concerns is the stronger message.
Please know that the issue you raised concerns me as well, but I would like to see more important and relevant examples if publishers elect to continue building examples along traditional gender lines.
Kimberly, I agree with you. The teachers and I have found that many of the word problems are not realistic. The context of the problem just doesn’t link well to the mathematical task or the numbers in the problem lead to unrealistic solutions. I think this is extremely problematic. How can students be supported to make sense of word problems if the problem context or numbers in the problem itself are non-sensical or unrealistic? It may be a valuable activity to have children critique the logic of the problems.
I love this post. We have been grappling with similar problems after attending a discussion group about gender in schools. So much in primary school is gendered - boys' day and girls' day, calling the roll etc. So much to think about.