May 17, 2012

I had a very interesting chat with two math professors at Ateneo University, one of the Philippines’ most prestigious institutions. I had requested a conversation so that I could ask how they inspire and engage their students in mathematics. It quickly evolved into a lively and insightful discussion detailing how culture plays a tremendous role in whether or not students, male and female, are inclined to study STEM subjects.

The two professors, both female, asserted that there were no gender differences in the students studying math at the university level. Even the Olympiad level – the most talented students in mathematics – is equally represented by males and females. This astounded me. I asked how they manage to engage so many females. They thoughtfully responded that engaging students isn’t really a problem because math is perceived as a very prestigious subject and students want to do well at it. Not being good at math is something to be ashamed of, and students don’t want this embarrassing fact to be known.

This struck me as a very interesting cultural difference, and I recollected the numerous times I had heard people in the United States saying nonchalantly, “I can’t do math.” “Math is scary.” “Math? Gross!” In the Philippines, students would not want others to know of this deficiency. It’s equivalent to someone in the United States saying whimsically, “I have warts.” Few would be comfortable speaking openly about something like that; we need to instill the same mentality about math.

“Okay, so students in the Philippines want to be good at math. Why is this so important to them?” I asked the professors. First of all, math is undoubtedly a difficult subject, so those who are proficient are regarded as intelligent. Intelligence is a respected characteristic. This does not hold true in American popular culture. A minority of students in your typical American high school look up to those who excel in school, but most are more inspired by sports, popularity, people of the opposite sex…you know what I mean. I doubt that a girl in the US will attempt to attract a guy by getting the high score on the class test.

Second of all, Asian students see the applicability of math in their daily lives more so than American students. I told the professors that this was one thing that really frustrated me as an educator: students don’t seem to understand what mathematics really is. It’s not the symbols, formulas, and rote memorization typically taught in US schools.* Mathematics is the backbone of many subjects – economics, business, science, engineering – and students in the US need to recognize this.

We need a cultural mind shift. I appeal to the media: please start actively portraying math as something cool, a skill that people should want to have. I call on celebrities to assist with this mind shift. David Beckham, you would look even better in your H&M underwear if you were also reading a math book. Brad and Angie, give your kids some math puzzles and let the paparazzi take photos of that. We need everyone to jump in here and get the US back in action.

*See Keith Devlin’s video interviews from Math inquiries Project where he explains the meaning of algebra.

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