Empowering Our Daughters to Love Math is about More than Numbers

By Jennifer Agustin

The more we can teach our children to embrace and appreciate critical thinking, the better equipped they will be for the future

My six-year-old daughter comes home with a math worksheet to complete every night. Most nights she completes it with relative ease, other nights—not so much. On one particular night, my daughter was asked to complete a number of questions that had to do with “finding doubles.” I found out later that there was a fire drill during class, and that there wasn’t quite enough time to go over the material on this topic, but she was assigned the homework anyway. It was challenging for her to the point of frustration—and equally challenging for me to see her not feel empowered to take on the task.

My daughter is brilliant. Her homework frustration resonates with me in a particularly tough way because I work at an education technology company, DreamBox Learning, a company that offers an adaptive, online K-8 math program, and this scene is contrary to how many of us in industry envision learning for kids. We see a world where children are fully engaged and in the driver’s seat when it comes to their learning, where lessons respond and adapt to children to meet them at the right level, whatever that level might be, not the other way around. As a professional, I am dedicated to ensuring that all children have access to and benefit from this level of personalized learning. As a mother of a young girl, it is imperative that I create an environment for learning and achievement that is engaging, equitable and supportive.

It’s no secret that women have lower representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees and careers, and this should be of concern for everyone. Whether you’re a parent or an educator looking to ensure equity for every child or a business professional seeking to establish a smarter, more profitable company, diversity in any field is proven to help. That being said, we should think bigger when it comes to empowering girls to love math. We must focus on the impact math can have on girls’ overall critical thinking, confidence, and eventual career paths, no matter their ambition.

So, what can we as parents do right now, for young girls in particular? Here are three ways we can shift the focus of empowerment beyond solving a numerical problem and toward the level of critical thinking that will be required of our children as technology shifts the jobs they will hold.

1. Banish the idea of being “good at math” by focusing less on the right answer and more on the thinking used to get there.

What does it mean to be “good at math”? Does being it mean you scored high on a particular test? Or that you feel confident when it comes to working through numerical problems? One of the best ways to encourage girls to appreciate math more—and become more confident—is to change the way we as parents view being “good at” math.

When I think of how I learned math, there was a lot of rote memorization and tests on certain days to measure progress. In contrast, many of today’s classrooms incorporate technology that supports personalized learning, an approach designed to meet the needs of every learner. What’s more, some educational technology solutions adapt to meet every student at the right level. In this type of learning environment mistakes are OK because it’s about more than getting the right answers—it’s about learning the strategies and critical thinking students use to answer questions that will continuously move them forward. While this type of experience might be significantly different from the ways we previously thought about math in school, it’s well worth it for parents to better understand it, and how it can help our girls succeed.

2. Connect math to everyday life and appreciation will follow.

According to Jo Boeler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, “[Girls] want to see the connections not only between math and the world and life, but they want to see the connections within math as well.” This means going beyond worksheets comprised of endless equations to complete, and instead, taking the time to appreciate math in everyday life.

On your next road trip, estimate how long a mile might be. Take a walk and identify any geometric shapes you see. Or the next time you’re making a meal together, invite friends and family over so you have an excuse to double the recipe and talk through the math behind baking. By enlightening your child as to how integrated math is throughout everyday life, she will feel more comfortable working with the numbers and better relate to math problems.

3. Talk to girls about why math matters, regardless of their career ambitions.

We as a society must strive to increase gender diversity in STEM careers. However, as parents, we should also embrace the opportunity to showcase the different ways in which math is used in a variety of other professions.

As a marketing executive, I utilize math every day to manage my advertising budget or forecast how marketing will impact our overall business. A retailer incorporates math to track inventory and sales. A chef applies mathematical thinking to calculate food based on the number of expected diners and the time needed for preparation. Let’s encourage more girls to appreciate math in school, and also encourage them to value how math matters in every profession.

So, what happens next?

Ideally, the confidence my daughter and other girls find in solving a math problem carries into any subject they tackle in middle school, high school and college. If she encounters managers or peers who question her in the workplace, maybe she’ll remember a time she struggled through a certain mathematical topic and ultimately mastered it by applying the right combination of critical thinking, hard work and determination. I won’t always be there to help my daughter when things go wrong, but I can certainly steer her toward the skills and learning experiences that will serve her now and far into the future.

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Jennifer Agustin is the vice president of marketing for DreamBox Learning. Building on a writing career that began in the 3rd grade, Jennifer has since written for outlets including the Huffington Post, Fast Company and Media Post. Find Jennifer on Twitter @leadjen.

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