I would like this week to look specifically at the advantages of girls only mathematics classes. There seems to be a societal perception that girls are not as naturally apt at mathematics as boys are. Whilst this is only a generalisation, it is worth exploring further. Virginia Bonomo from the University of Pennsylvania put forward research on brain-based gender differences in an academic paper called ‘Research-based Strategies to Meet the Distinctive Learning Needs of Boys and Girls’. In this paper, the physical attributes of male and female brains are discussed. As a result of these biological differences, boys develop spatial reasoning at an earlier age than girls. Spatial reasoning is often associated with capability in mathematics. I believe this early perception is often reinforced unintendedly in coeducational mathematics classrooms.
Tully and Jacobs focused a study on a population of female engineering students, probing the influences of their secondary school experience on their choice to pursue an engineering course at university. By using both qualitative and quantitative data, they found that in a sample of Australian engineering students enrolled at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), 40% of the female engineering student population had attended a single-gender secondary school. This far exceeds the proportion of girls who attend single-gender schools. In turn, this indicates a positive influence of single-gender school type on engineering enrolment patterns.
Female students were primarily motivated to pursue a tertiary engineering path because of a self-belief that they are good at mathematics. In measures of self- perception of mathematical skill and ability, female students from single-gender schools outscored their male engineering counterparts.
Additionally, female students seem to benefit from verbal encouragement, contextualisation, same gender problem-solving groups and same gender classroom dynamics. All of these things are of course found in Girls Grammar mathematics classrooms. Whilst there are most certainly perceptions about relative achievement of the genders in mathematics, I believe much of that can be self-perpetuating and overcome through the positive experiences in a girls only classroom.
I am brought to remember the comments from an old girl of the school who went on to study engineering at university. When called upon to solve a problem, the lecturer watched her confidently work and then comment, “You come from Girls Grammar don’t you.”
Dr John Fry
Deputy Principal - Studies