Sunday, January 8, 2012

Beanie's New Year

Last week, I checked Beanie's backpack and found this in her purple take-home folder.

At first, I marveled over it as evidence of her reflexivity and determination. I know math is not her favorite subject. So, I was impressed that she had expressed a wish to "get better" at math.

Yet, I also felt it was necessary to remind Beanie that in fact, she is already good at math. At school, she has been moving through her addition worksheets at a fine clip. At home, she and StraightMan have been exploring multiplication and division based on her own discovery of what it means to say "times two." Having suffered my own hang ups about math, I have tried hard to encourage Beanie to think about herself as good at math and to think about math as interesting, even enjoyable. I got her an electronic Minute Math game b/c she likes to have StraightMan set a timer when she does a math worksheet or flash cards (which again were her idea to get in the first place).

Then, walking home from school, she told me in her matter of fact manner that she was so happy that she had finished the W page / would start the X page of math even though she had been "shaking so badly" and her hands had "sweated so much that the paper stuck" during her math exercise at school.

I have been thinking about this b/c I saw on Facebook a link to this post on "The Trouble with Bright Girls" from last spring.

In particular, this observation made me think not only about why and how it is important for me to rethink how I might help Beanie, which psychologists Heidi Grant Halvorson and Carol Dweck would emphasize would be not through praise, but encouragement of her efforts:

[Dweck] found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls' IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.

Why does this happen? What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty -- what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright Girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result.

The difference, the author suggests, is based on what Bright Girls internalize:

More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their "goodness." When we do well in school, we are told that we are "so smart," "so clever, " or "such a good student." This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't.

This recalled to me a profile of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that was published in The New Yorker last year:

At her Phi Beta Kappa induction, there were separate ceremonies for men and women. At hers, a woman gave a speech called “Feeling Like a Fraud.” During the talk, Sandberg looked around the room and saw people nodding. “I thought it was the best speech I’d ever heard,” she recalls. “I felt like that my whole life.” At every stage of her time in school, Sandberg thought, I really fooled them. There was “zero chance,” she concluded, that the men in the other room felt the same.

Sandberg says she eventually realized that women, unlike men, encountered tradeoffs between success and likability. The women had internalized self-doubt as a form of self-defense: people don’t like women who boast about their achievements. The solution, she began to think, lay with the women. She blamed them more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism.

I remember feeling more than a bit irritated when I read this, and I am not the only reader who took umbrage with the emphasis on psychologies as opposed to the institutions and structures that keep women "in place." Then again, I think it is important and necessary to recognize that what the institutions and structures do is they create psychologies.

So, it matters a lot how parents talk to their daughters about math.

Driving home from piano lesson, I said as casually as I could: "Beanie, things like piano and math take a lot of practice, and I can tell from hearing you play and from your math worksheets that you practice a lot." To which Beanie replied: "I also practice a lot at reading."

To which I might respond that it takes a lot of practice to be a parent.