The Way We Teach Math Is Holding Women Back

Time

March 29, 2017

A Stanford math professor encourages a different teaching approach

First Daughter Ivanka Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured the National Air and Space Museum with a group of middle school students Tuesday, encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — even while President Donald Trump’s administration put forth a budget proposal that suggests cutting funding for education and research. There is nothing more important than advancing the STEM fields — and those groups who are underrepresented within them.

One area in desperate need of examination is the way we teach mathematics. Many Americans suffer from misconceptions about math. They think people are either born with a “math brain” or not — an idea that has been disproven — and that mathematics is all numbers, procedures and speedy thinking. In reality, mathematicians spend most of their working lives thinking slowly and deeply, investigating complex patterns in multiple dimensions. We sacrifice many people — women and students of color, in particular — at the altar of these myths about math.

Math is a prerequisite for most STEM fields, and the reason many students abandon STEM careers. In higher levels of mathematics, gender imbalances persist: In 2015, about 76% of math doctorates were awarded to men. This figure should prompt alarm in mathematics departments across the country — and encourage focus on an area that is shockingly neglected in discussions of equity: teaching methods in classrooms.

At Stanford University, I teach some of the country’s highest achievers. But when they enter fast-paced lecture halls, even those who were successful in high school mathematics start to think they’re not good enough. One of my undergraduates described the panic she felt when trying to keep pace with a professor: “The material felt like it was flying over my head,” she wrote. “It was like I was watching a lecture at 2x or 3x speed and there was no way to pause or replay it.” She described her fear of failure as “crippling.” This student questioned her intelligence and started to rethink whether she belonged in the field of math at all.

Research tells us that lecturers typically speak at between 100 and 125 words a minute, but students can take note of only about 20 words a minute, often leaving them feeling frustrated and defeated. “I’ve essentially given up in my math class right now,” another student of mine wrote. “In such a fast-paced environment where information is constantly coming at you, there just isn’t time to think deeply about what you are learning.”

The irony of the widespread emphasis on speed in math classrooms, with damaging timed tests given to students from an early age, is that some of the world’s most successful mathematicians describe themselves as slow thinkers. In his autobiography, Laurent Schwartz, winner of the world’s highest award in mathematics, described feeling “stupid” in school because he was a slow thinker. “I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent,” he wrote. “And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully.”

When students struggle in speed-driven math classes, they often believe the problem lies within themselves, not realizing that fast-paced lecturing is a faulty teaching method. The students most likely to internalize the problem are women and students of color. This is one of the main reasons that these students choose not to go forward in mathematics and other STEM subjects, and likely why a study found that in 2011, 74% of the STEM workforce was male and 71% was white.

Women are just as capable as men of working at high speed, of course, but I’ve found in my own research that they are more likely to reject subjects that do not give access to deep understanding. The deep understanding that women seek, and are often denied, is exactly what we need to encourage in students of mathematics. I have taught many deep, slow thinkers in mathematics classes over the years. Often, but not always, they are women, and many decide they cannot succeed in mathematics. But when the message about mathematics has changed to emphasize slower, deeper processing, I’ve seen many of these women go on to excel in STEM careers.

When mathematics classes become places where students explore ideas, more often than they watch procedures being rapidly demonstrated by a teacher or professor, we will start to liberate students from feelings of inadequacy. In a recent summer camp with 81 middle school students, we taught mathematics through open, creative lessons to demonstrate how mathematics is about thinking deeply, rather than calculating quickly. After 18 lessons, the students improved their mathematics achievement on standardized tests by an average of 50%, the equivalent of 1.6 years of school. If classrooms across the country would dispel the myths about math and teach differently, we would improve the lives of many students and enable the creation of a more diverse STEM workforce. It will take a generation of young, creative, adaptable and quantitative thinkers to tackle our society’s problems — thinkers that we are currently turning away from mathematics classrooms and lecture halls in droves.

Jo Boaler is a Stanford professor, co-founder of youcubed.org and author of best-selling book, Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching.

Raising My Daughter To Be A Warrior Of Love And Justice

The Huffington Post

In my family, we ain’t raising no princess.

09/16/2016 

EVAN ZISLIS
JunoWarriorChild

My daughter started taking martial arts when she was five years old. I think it’s helped teach her confidence, self-discipline, and self-reliance. Life isn’t always cream puffs and unicorns. When dire circumstances warrant acute awareness, hyper-focus, and rapid response — kids trained in resilience are far more likely to endure hardship and advocate for peace with poise.

In my family, we ain’t raising no princess. We’re revolutionaries and unyielding warriors of justice. We do our research. We know where our food comes from. We’re intentional and informed with every purchase. We talk about environmental preservation, human rights and civil liberties. We look at labels and shop almost exclusively second-hand. We vehemently reject playground and corporate bullies seeking to profit on the backs of the little guy. In our house, we relentlessly root for the underdog and those doing the right thing. In our community, we show up with blood, sweat, tears, gluten-free chocolate chip banana bread, and baskets of homegrown organic veggies for those struggling to survive the day.

At our dinner table, no topic is taboo. We name the elephant in the room and promote discourse on all things controversial. We respectfully provide opportunity for everyone to express opinions, vet ideas, and workshop viable resolutions. When something makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up, we talk about it. We understand that safety is an illusion and control is a fairy tale; that on any given day, precious life is precarious, hanging in the balance like a feather on the wind. We reject hate-talk and dismiss fear-mongering. We embrace the practicality of living every moment — because life’s too short to pretend it’s not.

“Everybody dies” is a common mantra in our home. Not for fear of death, but as a compassionate reminder that in life there is no permanence. Our soulful six year old has given elaborate burials to expired honey bees found in our garden, respectfully thanking them for their invaluable contributions and wishing them safe passage to future endeavors. Living an active outdoor lifestyle in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, she’s become an avid student of wildlife biology, horticulture, and ethnobotany. True to her namesake, our astute Juniper is diligently learning the nuances of the food chain, life cycles, and the interconnectedness of all things.

We don’t have television. Juno’s exposure to cliché Disney princesses has largely been limited to the fiery, redheaded archer Merida from the movie “Brave.” Our favorite bedtime stories are about hardship, adversity and redemption, where the heroine needs no rescuing. Books like “The Paperbag Princess,” by Robert Munsch reveal protagonists’ inner strength and self-determination we want to nurture in our own daughter. Parents looking for inspiration can check this greatbook list (for older readers) with female characters who promote the kind of bravery and perseverance we should all seek to cultivate from an early age.

As a professional organizer and author, it’s my job to help people simplify, discover clarity, and become inspired by a rewarding life of purpose. You bet your ass my wife and I will be raising our daughter to be an independent thinker, a compassionate warrior, and a paragon of stewardship and integrity. Simon Sinek brilliantly reminds us, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” In my home, we’re far from perfect and that means approaching every heart-felt effort with humility and a commitment to personal growth. Will Durant’s famous interpretation of Aristotle states, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

At six years old, Juno’s well on her way to understanding that intentional habits grounded in compassion, generosity, and getting after it like a warrior — will reliably deliver hard-won results now and for the rest of her life.

Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?

The New York Times

By CAROLINE PAUL FEB. 20, 2016

21paul-master675

Credit Lauren Tamaki

I WAS one of the first women in the San Francisco Fire Department. For more than a dozen years, I worked on a busy rig in a tough neighborhood where rundown houses caught fire easily and gangs fought with machetes and .22s. I’ve pulled a bloated body from the bay, performed CPR on a baby and crawled down countless smoky hallways.

I expected people to question whether I had the physical ability to do the job (even though I was a 5-foot-10, 150-pound ex-college athlete). What I didn’t expect was the question I heard more than any other: “Aren’t you scared?”

It was strange — and insulting — to have my courage doubted. I never heard my male colleagues asked this. Apparently, fear is expected of women.

This fear conditioning begins early. Many studies have shown that physical activity — sports, hiking, playing outdoors — is tied to girls’ self-esteem. And yet girls are often warned away from doing anything that involves a hint of risk.

One study focused on, coincidentally, a playground fire pole, is particularly revealing. It was published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology and showed that parents cautioned their daughters about the dangers of the fire pole significantly more than they did their sons and were much more likely to assist them. But both moms and dads directed their sons to face their fears, with instruction on how to complete the task on their own.

I spoke recently to a friend who admitted that she cautioned her daughter much more than her son. “But she’s very klutzy,” the mom explained. I wondered, wasn’t there a way even a klutzy child could take risks? My friend agreed there might be, but only halfheartedly, and I could see on her face that maternal instinct was sparring with feminism, and feminism was losing.

I had been a klutzy child, too. I was also shy, and scared of many things: big kids, whatever might be under my bed at night, school. But I pored over National Geographic and “Harriet the Spy.” I knew all about Sir Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table, who wandered the countryside swearing oaths of bravery and honor. None of these characters talked about fear. They talked about courage, exploration and exciting deeds.

So I biked down a steep country road (and hit a car). I sledded down an icy hill (and hit a tree). I don’t remember my parents freaking out; they seemed to understand that mishaps were part of childhood. I got a few stitches, and kept biking and sledding. Misadventures meant that I should try again. With each triumph over fear and physical adversity, I gained confidence.

I recently asked my mother why she never tried to stop me. She said that her own mother had been very fearful, gasping at anything remotely rough-and-tumble. “I had been so discouraged from having adventures, and I wanted you to have a more exciting childhood,” she told me.

My mom is an outlier. According to a study in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology last year, parents are “four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful” after mishaps that are not life-threatening but do entail a trip to the emergency room. It seems like a reasonable warning. But there is a drawback, and the researchers remarked on it: “Girls may be less likely than boys to try challenging physical activities, which are important for developing new skills.” This study points to an uncomfortable truth: We think our daughters are more fragile, both physically and emotionally, than our sons.
Nobody is saying that injuries are good, or that girls should be reckless. But risk taking is important. Gever Tulley, the author of “50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),” encourages girls and boys to own pocketknives, light fires and throw spears, arguing that dangerous activities under supervision can teach kids responsibility, problem-solving and confidence. It follows that by cautioning girls away from these experiences, we are not protecting them. We are failing to prepare them for life.

When a girl learns that the chance of skinning her knee is an acceptable reason not to attempt the fire pole, she learns to avoid activities outside her comfort zone. Soon many situations are considered too scary, when in fact they are simply exhilarating and unknown. Fear becomes a go-to feminine trait, something girls are expected to feel and express at will. By the time a girl reaches her tweens no one bats an eye when she screams at the sight of an insect.

When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making. We try to counter this conditioning by urging ourselves to “lean in.” Books on female empowerment proliferate on our shelves. I admire what these writers are trying to do — but they come far too late.

We must chuck the insidious language of fear (Be careful! That’s too scary!) and instead use the same terms we offer boys, of bravery and resilience. We need to embolden girls to master skills that at first appear difficult, even dangerous. And it’s not cute when a 10-year-old girl screeches, “I’m too scared.”

When I worked as a firefighter, I was often scared. Of course I was. So were the men. But fear wasn’t a reason to quit. I put my fear where it belonged, behind my feelings of focus, confidence and courage. Then I headed, with my crew, into the burning building.

Caroline Paul is the author of the forthcoming book “The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure.”

How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls From Math and Science

We know that women are underrepresented in math and science jobs. What we don’t know is why it happens.

There are various theories, and many of them focus on childhood. Parents and toy-makers discourage girls from studying math and science. So do their teachers. Girls lack role models in those fields, and grow up believing they wouldn’t do well in them.

All these factors surely play some role. A new study points to the influence of teachers’ unconscious biases, but it also highlights how powerful a little encouragement can be. Early educational experiences have a quantifiable effect on the math and science courses the students choose later, and eventually the jobs they get and the wages they earn.

The effect is larger for children from families in which the father is more educated than the mother and for girls from lower-income families, according to the study, published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The pipeline for women to enter math and science occupations narrows at many points between kindergarten and a career choice, but elementary school seems to be a critical juncture. Reversing bias among teachers could increase the number of women who enter fields like computer science and engineering, which are some of the fastest growing and highest paying.

Photo

A new study points to the influential role played by teachers’ unconscious biases, but it also highlights how powerful a little encouragement can be for children.CreditErik S. Lesser for The New York Times

“It goes a long way to showing it’s not the students or the home, but the classroom teacher’s behavior that explains part of the differences over time between boys and girls,” said Victor Lavy, an economist at University of Warwick in England and a co-author of the paper.

Previous studies have found that college professors and employers discriminate against female scientists. But it is not surprising that it begins even earlier.

In computer science in the United States, for instance, just 18.5 percent of the high school students who take the Advanced Placement exam are girls. In college, women earn only 12 percent of computer science degrees.

That is one reason that tech companies say they have hired so few women. Last year, Google, Apple and Facebook, among others, revealed that fewer than a fifth of technical employees are women.

“The most surprising and I think important finding in the paper is that a biasing teacher affects the work choices students make and whether to study math and science years later,” said Mr. Lavy, who conducted the study with Edith Sand of Tel Aviv University.

Beginning in 2002, the researchers studied three groups of Israeli students from sixth grade through the end of high school. The students were given two exams, one graded by outsiders who did not know their identities and another by teachers who knew their names.

In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names. The effect was not the same for tests on other subjects, like English and Hebrew. The researchers concluded that in math and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls’, and that this had long-term effects on students’ attitudes toward the subjects.

For example, when the same students reached junior high and high school, the economists analyzed their performance on national exams. The boys who had been encouraged when they were younger performed significantly better.

They also tracked the advanced math and science courses that students chose to take in high school. After controlling for other factors that might affect their choices, they concluded that the girls who had been discouraged by their elementary schoolteachers were much less likely than the boys to take advanced courses.

Although the study took place in Israel, Mr. Lavy said that similar research had been conducted in several European countries and that he expected the results were applicable in the United States. The researchers also found that discouragement from teachers in math or science wound up lowering students’ confidence in other subjects at school, showing again the potential importance of nods of encouragement.

All Around The World, Girls Are Doing Much Better Than Boys Academically

Huffington Post

Posted: 01/28/2015 7:18 pm EST Updated: 01/28/2015 7:59 pm EST
MUSLIM GIRL IN SCHOOL

Girls are academically outperforming boys in many countries around the world — even in places where women face political, economic or social inequalities.

A new report from Dr. Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow in Scotland andDavid C. Geary of the University of Missouri found that in 2009, high school girls performed significantly better on an international standardized test in 52 out of 74 studied countries.

The researchers set out to explore the connection between academic achievement and a country’s levels of gender inequality, speculating that girls might do worse on the Programme for International Student Assessment in countries where they are typically treated unfairly. On the contrary, researchers found that girls have been consistently outperforming boys for the last decade, regardless of countries’ treatment of women.

“In a lot of these countries women are not allowed to do a lot of things, but what’s interesting is even in these countries girls are doing better in school,” Geary told The Huffington Post over the phone. The study notes the results extend to strict Muslim countries where there tends to be a “lack of opportunities for girls and women.”

PISA is a test that has been distributed around the world since 2000 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Researchers found that on the 2009 test, girls performed better than boys in reading, math and science in 70 percent of studied countries.

Geary noted that the top male performers tended do better in math on the exam than the top female test-takers, which feeds into a focus on the gender gap in STEM-related jobs. But at the same time, he said, there has been a lack of focus on the fact that girls seem to be performing better on the whole.

“All debate and fretting over STEM stuff, where boys go into STEM fields and do better at math, that is all at the upper end of achievement,” said Geary. “But there’s a whole lot of other kids in the world that are never going to go into STEM. When you look at all of those other 95 percent of the world’s kids, we see boys falling behind girls pretty much everywhere.”

Geary said he worried about the study’s implications for an increasingly complex labor market. Especially in non-developed countries, he said, there’s going to be “a lot of boys who are going to become young adults with few employable skills.”

“If you have countries with a large percentage of these types of men, crime rates go up,” he said, including violent crime.

Geary said he hopes the findings bring more attention to the issue of boys falling behind in school.

“The boys’ problems are overlooked,” said Geary. “It’s an important problem and a worldwide problem, and potentially has some serious implications … it just hasn’t been addressed and is not even on people’s radar to even figure out why this is the case.”

Why Girls Tend to Get Better Grades Than Boys Do

The Atlantic

New research shows that girls are ahead in every subject, including math and science. Do today’s grading methods skew in their favor?

IsabelleAcatauassu/Flickr

As the new school year ramps up, teachers and parents need to be reminded of a well-kept secret: Across all grade levels and academic subjects, girls earn higher grades than boys. Not just in the United States, but across the globe, in countries as far afield as Norway and Hong Kong.

This finding is reflected in a recent study by psychology professors Daniel and Susan Voyer at the University of New Brunswick. The Voyers based their results on a meta-analysis of 369 studies involving the academic grades of over one million boys and girls from 30 different nations. The findings are unquestionably robust: Girls earn higher grades in every subject, including the science-related fields where boys are thought to surpass them.

Less of a secret is the gender disparity in college enrollment rates. The latestdata from the Pew Research Center uses U.S. Census Bureau data to show that in 2012, 71 percent of female high school graduates went on to college, compared to 61 percent of their male counterparts. In 1994 the figures were 63 and 61 percent, respectively. In other words, college enrollment rates for young women are climbing while those of young men remain flat.

This begs a sensitive question: Are schools set up to favor the way girls learn and trip up boys?

Let’s start with kindergarten. Claire Cameron from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia has dedicated her career to studying kindergarten readiness in kids. She’s found that little ones who are destined to do well in a typical 21st century kindergarten class are those who manifest good self-regulation. This is a term that is bandied about a great deal these days by teachers and psychologists. It mostly refers to disciplined behaviors like raising one’s hand in class, waiting one’s turn, paying attention, listening to and following teachers’ instructions, and restraining oneself from blurting out answers. These skills are prerequisites for most academically oriented kindergarten classes in America—as well as basic prerequisites for success in life.

As it turns out, kindergarten-age girls have far better self-regulation than boys. A few years ago, Cameron and her colleagues confirmed this by putting several hundred 5 and 6-year-old boys and girls through a type of Simon-Says game called the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task. Trained research assistants rated the kids’ ability to follow the correct instruction and not be thrown off by a confounding one—in some cases, for instance, they were instructed to touch their toes every time they were asked to touch their heads. Curiously enough, remembering such rules as “touch your head really means touch your toes” and inhibiting the urge to touch one’s head instead amounts to a nifty example of good overall self-regulation.

The researchers combined the results of boys’ and girls’ scores on the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task with parents’ and teachers’ ratings of these same kids’ capacity to pay attention, follow directions, finish schoolwork, and stay organized. The outcome was remarkable. They discovered that boys were a whole year behind girls in all areas of self-regulation. By the end of kindergarten, boys were just beginning to acquire the self-regulatory skills with which girls had started the year.

This self-discipline edge for girls carries into middle-school and beyond. In a 2006 landmark study, Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth found that middle-school girls edge out boys in overall self-discipline. This contributes greatly to their better grades across all subjects. They found that girls are more adept at “reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions,” “paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming,” “choosing homework over TV,” and “persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.” These top cognitive scientists from the University of Pennsylvania also found that girls are apt to start their homework earlier in the day than boys and spend almost double the amount of time completing it. Girls’ grade point averages across all subjects were higher than those of boys, even in basic and advanced math—which, again, are seen as traditional strongholds of boys.

What Drs. Seligman and Duckworth label “self-discipline,” other researchers name “conscientiousness.” Or, a predisposition to plan ahead, set goals, and persist in the face of frustrations and setbacks. Conscientiousness is uniformly considered by social scientists to be an inborn personality trait that is not evenly distributed across all humans. In fact, a host of cross-cultural studies show that females tend to be more conscientious than males. One such study by Lindsay Reddington out of Columbia University even found that female college students are far more likely than males to jot down detailed notes in class, transcribe what professors say more accurately, and remember lecture content better. Arguably, boys’ less developed conscientiousness leaves them at a disadvantage in school settings where grades heavily weight good organizational skills alongside demonstrations of acquired knowledge.

These days, the whole school experience seems to play right into most girls’ strengths—and most boys’ weaknesses. Gone are the days when you could blow off a series of homework assignments throughout the semester but pull through with a respectable grade by cramming for and acing that all-important mid-term exam. Getting good grades today is far more about keeping up with and producing quality homework—not to mention handing it in on time.

Gwen Kenney-Benson, a psychology professor at Allegheny College, a liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania, says that girls succeed over boys in school because they tend to be more mastery-oriented in their schoolwork habits. They are more apt to plan ahead, set academic goals, and put effort into achieving those goals. They also are more likely than boys to feel intrinsically satisfied with the whole enterprise of organizing their work, and more invested in impressing themselves and their teachers with their efforts.

On the whole, boys approach schoolwork differently. They are more performance-oriented. Studying for and taking tests taps into their competitive instincts. For many boys, tests are quests that get their hearts pounding. Doing well on them is a public demonstration of excellence and an occasion for a high-five. In contrast, Kenney-Benson and some fellow academics provide evidence that the stress many girls experience in test situations can artificially lower their performance, giving a false reading of their true abilities. These researchers arrive at the following overarching conclusion: “The testing situation may underestimate girls’ abilities, but the classroom may underestimate boys’ abilities.”

It is easy to for boys to feel alienated in an environment where homework and organization skills account for so much of their grades. But the educational tide may be turning in small ways that give boys more of a fighting chance. An example of this is what occurred several years ago at Ellis Middle School, in Austin, Minnesota. Teachers realized that a sizable chunk of kids who aced tests trundled along each year getting C’s, D’s, and F’s. At the same time, about 10 percent of the students who consistently obtained A’s and B’s did poorly on important tests. Grading policies were revamped and school officials smartly decided to furnish kids with two separate grades each semester. One grade was given for good work habits and citizenship, which they called a “life skills grade.” A “knowledge grade” was given based on average scores across important tests. Tests could be retaken at any point in the semester, provided a student was up to date on homework.

Staff at Ellis Middle School also stopped factoring homework into a kid’s grade. Homework was framed as practice for tests. Incomplete or tardy assignments were noted but didn’t lower a kid’s knowledge grade. The whole enterprise of severely downgrading kids for such transgressions as occasionally being late to class, blurting out answers, doodling instead of taking notes, having a messy backpack, poking the kid in front, or forgetting to have parents sign a permission slip for a class trip, was revamped.

This last point was of particular interest to me. On countless occasions, I have attended school meetings for boy clients of mine who are in an ADHD red-zone. I have learned to request a grade print-out in advance. Not uncommonly, there is a checkered history of radically different grades: A, A, A, B, B, F, F, A. When F grades and a resultant zero points are given for late or missing assignments, a student’s C grade does not reflect his academic performance. Since boys tend to be less conscientious than girls—more apt to space out and leave a completed assignment at home, more likely to fail to turn the page and complete the questions on the back—a distinct fairness issue comes into play when a boy’s occasional lapse results in a low grade. Sadly though, it appears that the overwhelming trend among teachers is to assign zero points for late work. In one survey by Conni Campbell, associate dean of the School of Education at Point Loma Nazarene University, 84 percent of teachers did just that.

Disaffected boys may also benefit from a boot camp on test-taking, time-management, and study habits. These core skills are not always picked up by osmosis in the classroom, or from diligent parents at home. Of course, addressing the learning gap between boys and girls will require parents, teachers and school administrators to talk more openly about the ways each gender approaches classroom learning—and that difference itself remains a tender topic.

Technology and the classroom: Girls face greater challenges balancing digital learning with social lives

Mercury News

By Ana Homayoun

Posted:   05/28/2013 09:13:14 AM PDT

These days, prom season seems to be on steroids.

Each spring, high school girls search for the perfect prom dress. Instead of debuting it on prom night, girls create Facebook “prom dress page” groups to avoid the potential embarrassment of discovering someone else is wearing the same dress on prom night. The dress choices elicit a range of responses from supportive to just plain mean. Body image issues surface. It doesn’t take long for the groups to morph into nuanced, drama-filled competitions filled with exclusionary tactics (“Please don’t add any freshman or sophomores unless you know they are being asked!”) and manipulations that would make politicians squirm.

It might be tolerable if online drama only played out after school. Now, the already complex dynamics of girls’ friendships are even more complicated by increased technology in the classroom.

“I usually update my Tumblr account during my third-period math class,” one high school senior recently told me with an air of adolescent defiance. Her private school had recently given each student an iPad. Although the school tried to block access to sites like Facebook and YouTube, students found ways to outmaneuver the restrictions.

Those who log into Facebook before coming to school, for instance, can maintain access throughout the day by refreshing the page. Under the guise of note-taking, students routinely use online sites as classroom diversions.

As technology becomes an even more integral part of classroom learning, online interactions will more aggressively contribute to the overall school climate.

According to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Education, public school teachers reported that 69 percent of their students use computers during class most or some of the time. Internet connection was available for 96 percent of computers brought into classrooms.

Research suggests that males tend to focus more of their online efforts on gaming, while females tend to spend more time socializing. Many girls now find their interpersonal relationships are even more intertwined with their academic experiences. Unlike whispers in the hallway or notes passed in the middle of class, rumors online leave digital traces, and the potential to go viral can cause intense panic and rash decision-making.

School social networking puts even greater pressure on girls’ mental health. The statistics are overwhelmingly not in girls’ favor: Girls are twice as likely to be bullied electronically, and perceptions of school climate and culture can directly affect their overall wellness.

Researchers at the University of South Florida found that girls who had negative perceptions of school climate were far more likely also to have greater self-reported mental health issues.

Proponents of classroom online learning highlight the potential for more personalized learning experiences. Even so, social media distractions can be too much for students to self-regulate, and the fear of missing out often creates another layer of social anxiety in the classroom.

If we really want to create a healthier and safer school climate, we need to fully recognize and address the many ways information and conversations flow through school walls, hallways and classroom communities. We need to proactively help students develop positive coping strategies if something goes digitally awry.

Students are fumbling through the ultimate paradox — the same tools needed to complete school assignments also provide them with an outlet for socialization and potential distraction from getting work done. As it stands, increased classroom Internet access can potentially detract from our overall education and wellness hopes for our children, and neglecting the potential consequences could bring devastating implications for our youngest and most impressionable students.

Unlike prom night, the effects are 24/7.

Ana Homayoun, founder of Los Altos-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting, is an expert on the intersection of technology, learning and social media and the author most recently of “The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life.” Follow her @anahomayoun. She wrote this for this newspaper.