Last Monday a well-known media leaked information about the draft of the Education Law that the Government is preparing, and more specifically about the curriculum for the subject of Mathematics. Specifically, the headline read: The Government gives Mathematics a “socio-emotional” approach and with a “gender perspective”, and it was an immediate uproar on social networks, such as Twitter where well-known users and political personalities began to revile the proposal, even assuring that what the Government intends is to “soften the matter” and make it more “cute”. There were even those who, in a display of ingenuity, spoke of filling the world with “legs.”
What the Government really intends with the new curriculum is still a mystery, since the only thing we know so far are these leaks. However, in which we do not have any kind of incognito is the fear that any law that contains the word gender arouses, as if it were measures solely aimed at penalizing men or, what is even more twisted and retrograde, adopting paternalistic measures towards women, assuming them a lower capacity. And far from it.
Of course, it seems natural to me the doubt about what is a socio-emotional approach and with a gender perspective and how it can be applied to a subject like Mathematics … an exact science and without apparent biases. Let’s try to understand it.
Let’s go first to what pertains to the socio-emotional approach. To situate ourselves, let’s think about all the times we have heard, without being surprised, that “mathematics was fatal to me” or “I am more of letters” to excuse mistakes when performing calculations or understanding related daily issues with this science.
And it has been shown that facing subjects such as Mathematics, whose teaching is usually focused on abstract content and away from a practical perspective, generates anxiety. And beware, it is not about that person’s performance being better or worse when solving a test, it is about suffering at the mere idea of facing said test, activating circuits related to pain that prevent even trying. It is what is known as “learned helplessness” and I am not saying it, it is said by various studies published in prestigious scientific journals that you can consult summarized in various articles from the Sinc agency that Pampa Molina compiled in this twitter thread.
In this sense, it is very necessary to start teaching and evaluating Mathematics in another way, and no, it is not about lowering the level of the contents, it is about giving them context adapted to the people who are in the classroom, to show its practical side and its relevance in everyday matters. On how to do it, we already have the bases in that of The White Paper on Mathematics, presented by the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society (RSME) in 2020, a document prepared by various experts in mathematics didactics and which includes proposals in this regard.
So far nothing new under the sun, it is about making Mathematics more attractive and accessible. But then the issue that raises the most blisters of the headline comes into play, the gender perspective.
Many of the criticisms received claim that Mathematics is a science in which only concepts fit and there is no possible gender bias. But the truth is that no subject is free of bias from the moment that both those who teach it and those who receive it are people who live in a society where these biases are present on a day-to-day basis. And perhaps you are thinking about what those biases are, but it does not take more than five minutes of commercials from any children’s television channel to realize that stuffed animals, babies, nail polishes, houses and kitchens are still mostly for them, while they play with buildings, racing cars or superheroes.
These and other stimuli that we receive from childhood, such as clothing or the way our families treat us, gradually soften our self-perception of how we should be and what our position in society should be, determining how we deal with our day by day, to our studies and our future.
Of course, you are going to tell me that this has nothing to do with performance in Mathematics, that a girl can play with kitchenettes and be very good in her studies, it would be missing more!
However, there are studies, such as this published in the journal Science that demonstrate how, from the age of six, girls begin to perceive themselves as less bright than their male peers and, in particular, as less apt for Mathematics and more for Biology or Literature, and this is the point The White Paper on Mathematics.
This self-perception further aggravates the feeling of anxiety that we have talked about before and is combined with established gender roles, pushing women to choose careers more related to social approaches related to care, such as Medicine, Biology, etc. . And it is true that Mathematics is a career in which, for many years, the percentage of women has been equal to or greater than that of men, however, when choosing a professional destination, many of these women opted for teaching, giving themselves the paradox that, in an increasingly technical society, where the profile of a person graduated in Mathematics is increasingly in demand, the percentage of women who decide on this career has begun to decline, as it already happened in its day with studies in computer engineering.
It is necessary, therefore, to promote a vision of Mathematics that is just as attractive for them as it is for them at all levels. In this sense The book Mathematics Target proposes to encourage the participation of all students and, especially of women, favoring non-competitive teaching environments, showing the social applicability of Mathematics, presenting both historical and current references of women who dedicate themselves to Mathematics in areas such as the university or the company.
Ultimately, it is about understanding that those who study are people who live in a society that is not without biases. People who have their concerns and their own perception of the world. People who need empathy to be able to develop their capacities to the maximum and, above all, people who need Mathematics to function better in the world around them.
However, no matter the approach we want to give it, without financial and material means, all this will be dead paper.