Mathematics as a secondary subject: the girls' view
Mathematics evokes a range of negative emotions from many girls as they struggle to see its worth. Many girls hate mathematics, they view it as unimportant and boring, and they enjoy their other school subjects far more. In contrast, other subjects are often described using positive adjectives such as fun, enjoyable and creative. Hegemonic traditions and masculinised methods of teaching and learning continue to influence the curriculum and teaching of mathematics, and result in disengagement of girls from this important school subject. This master’s thesis research is a study of a group of fourteen Year Twelve New Zealand girls. Discourses of disadvantage in New Zealand educational circles have focused on boys’ underachievement in the school system and the small numbers of students entering STEM pathways post-school. This focus has drawn the attention away from the many cases where girls of all abilities chose lower-level mathematics courses, opted out of mathematics altogether, or just failed to engage with, and enjoy mathematics. The research, reported in this thesis, addresses the gaps in the literature by contrasting the girls’ experiences in mathematics to their experiences in other more traditional ‘feminine’ school subjects such as drama, food technology and English, to highlight differences and unpack girls’ preferences for their learning experiences. Four different year twelve mathematics classes were observed at least four times each in this research. The girls’ were also observed forty-two times in their other school subjects. Twenty-two interviews were conducted and then transcribed. Discourse analysis of the qualitative data, drawn from the interviews and classroom observations, was informed by poststructural theory. Specifically, this research unpacked the multiple and often, competing discourses within which these girls were positioned through their experiences of school mathematics. Poststructuralist tools allowed for (re)telling, unpacking, and troubling the stories of how this group of female students experienced mathematical space in the context of their everyday experience of secondary school. The research identified that traditional pedagogies that involved teacher-directed classroom spaces dominated their experiences of mathematics. There was very little opportunity for discussion and group work in mathematics. The girls were able to move freely around the rooms in other subjects; they were able to control their own learning progression by having freedom to construct their own knowledge production in collaboration with others by discussing their work with both the teacher and their peers. Rarely in mathematics did the girls experience practical, hands-on activities, and rarely did they see any practical uses for the mathematical skills they were being taught. Realistic contexts were missing and they found it difficult to link mathematical ideas to real-world experiences. Tensions arose because mathematics was often sold to these girls as something useful for their futures, however their experiences left them confused about this usefulness. These negative experiences of mathematics influenced whether these girls chose to continue with mathematics in the future. This research showed that the girls preferred their other subjects and subject teachers to mathematics and their mathematics teachers, often describing their other subjects as more engaging, more useful and more thought provoking. Only three of my research participants wanted to continue with mathematics in the year following from this study. For the other eleven disengaged girls, their other school subjects provided them with more appealing pathways for learning and because of this their mathematical journey ended. The learning of mathematics is far too important to be discarded in this way.
Advisor: Sandretto, Susan
Degree Name: Master of Arts
Degree Discipline: Education
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Mathematics; New Zealand; Girls; Poststructuralist; voice; experiences; feminine; qualitative; discourse analysis; space; secondary; discussion; context; real-world
Research Type: Thesis