It takes a village to raise a mathematician

child-and-schoolThe more time I spend trying to interest kids, and girls in particular, in coding, technology and science the more I become convinced that nothing will change without a significant shift in the way our society views these subjects. It’s not that the kids aren’t interested and capable, it’s that they get no support from their families and peers.

I was chatting with a friend about a couple of kids who are good musicians and put in hours of practice on their instruments, and we were trying to understand why they just wanted to jump to being full-fledged coders without any of the necessary intermediate steps (the kids get that they can’t just pick up an instrument and play in an orchestra, but seem to think you can do two weeks of learning to code with Scratch and then jump right to creating the next Minecraft). The conclusion we came to was that the kids’ parents forced them to learn music from a very young age and so by the time the kids’ knew better they were already competent and already in the habit of investing time in their music. But families just generally don’t see STEM endeavors in the same way.

With this background I was interested to read an article in the AFR recently looking at why Asian kids are generally good at maths (and how that leads to involvement in engineering, science and coding). After looking at differences in the way numbers are expressed and variations in the curriculum, the author reached the conclusion that the real difference lies in the way that the community values maths as a subject:

To begin with, the mothers I encountered genuinely believed that maths is very important. This may sound insignificant, but it’s not. When I lived in the US, I didn’t hear parents constantly talk about maths. And even in Singapore, I rarely hear Western expats talking about maths the way that Asians do.

When a community values something deeply, it diverts resources and energy toward that thing. In numerous informal conversations, mothers described the importance they attached to maths. They also said that they communicate this value to their children very explicitly, so their kids also believe that maths is extremely important.

This idea that it is not just about the school and the formal curriculum, but about the family and society valuing and thus investing in STEM is one that resonates very strongly with what I see in kids today. If we as the adult members of society don’t value STEM subjects, then our kids will simply not pursue them no matter what we do to the curriculum.

The author goes on to talk about how Asia parents spend time with their kids working on maths problems and teaching them concepts at a young age. And that highlights the dire situation we now find ourselves in: You can only do that if you have any idea about the concepts yourself and every generation we do not teach maths to is one that finds it difficult to encourage maths in the next generation. We are on a downwards spiral.

And to whatever extent that hypothesis is correct, the spiral is even worse for girls.

Teaching coding in schools and making maths a compulsory subject throughout school are, in my view, the foundations of a good education; and I’ve long said so. The thing that I’ve recently come to believe is that the importance is not just in the current generation but in future generations. All too often people ask: Why bother learning maths / science / coding for the HSC, I’ll never use it anyway? While, I think that view is fundamentally wrong, a valid answer might be: Learn it because you’ll be able to support your children learning more.

The AFR article Why are all the Asian kids on the maths team? is worth a quick read. Thinking about how we can change the way our society values STEM is worth a great deal of thought.

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