Boo likes math. She likes me to keep her amused in the car by asking her math questions, and I usually ask questions like, “What’s 10 plus 10 plus 10 plus 10 minus 5 plus 10 minus 5?” I’m always impressed when she throws out the answer practically the moment I’ve finished speaking. She keeps up. I’m guessing that means she’s pretty good at mental math. This is backed up by her teacher, who says complementary things about her when I see her in the hall.

So this weekend, the cousins are in town. J’s brother was playing Monopoly with Boo and mentioned that Boo seems pretty good at math. He says he’s heard being good at – hell, I don’t remember the term, because I’m not good at math – but it means doubling numbers repeatedly. So he asks Boo, who is in first grade, “What’s one doubled?” Boo says, “Two.” He says, “What’s two doubled?” and so on. I expected that 8 doubled would give her pause, but it did not. 16 doubled gave her pause. About two seconds of a pause. I don’t know how she knows that. 32 doubled took her about 3 seconds to figure out, maybe 4. At this point, jaws were dropping.

She got to 256, then blew doubling that and they moved back to the Monopoly game they were playing. That last one took her a few moments, while she walked back and forth and muttered to herself, but did not attempt to use her fingers at any point.

It seems to me that this is pretty cool, and I’d just love to know a way to help her keep this strength. I remember Maya spontaneously doing simple math in her head when she was 3 and 4 years old and being so delighted that it seemed to come easily to her. Then she had a hell of a time with her times tables and by grade 6 she was blowing every test and announcing she hated math and would quit as soon as possible. She now has a tutor and regularly pulls in marks of over 90% on her tests. But the moment you throw her a new concept, she’s back at ground zero, pronouncing math impossible and she still says she’s bad at it and hates it. Thank goodness she has a great tutor who makes everything easy for her and I’m hoping that after enough time, her confidence will be built back to the point where she will be able to tackle new concepts and problem-solve.

Asher’s pretty good at it and, remarkably, has full confidence that he’s good at it. In fact, he just utterly tanked a test and was completely unconcerned, explaining that the problem was that he just didn’t understand the questions (well, duh!). He still likes math. (Doesn’t like reading, though. My kids are walking stereotypes.)

Why why why is it that girls lose it and boys don’t? And how can we stop it from happening again? I’m thinking our best hope is that math just comes so easily to Boo that she never questions her ability to do it.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

on March 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm |alexTwo books you may want to consider. I have no idea if they’re any good or not:

http://www.kissmymath.com/

http://www.mathdoesntsuck.com/

on March 16, 2009 at 1:01 am |mathmomI have a lot to say about this.

First, I think that what girls lose and boys don’t is not their ability, but their confidence. They hit a bump in the road, and are quick to jump to “I suck at this”. This is fed by subtle and not so subtle social stereotyping. Girls aren’t “supposed to” be good at math, it isn’t cool, etc. It takes either a socially clueless or very self-confident girl to ignore them — a normal pre-teen girl is going to be very tuned in to these messages, sadly.

So, Maya hit a bump with her times tables. Knowing your times tables is important, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with being good at math. It is a totally separate skill. Lots of top mathematicians have been known to count on their fingers now and then… But now Maya has a tutor which just proves (in her mind) that she sucks at math, even though she is pulling in 90’s. I’d second the recommendations for the Danica McKellar books. (You may need to hold your nose while buying them — they’re rather “obnoxiously” girly.) They may help counteract the “math isn’t cool for girls” message, and if nothing else, they’ll help her shore up her middle-school math skills, which are the basis for everything she’ll learn in HS. Decimals, fractions, ratio and percent — if she’s confident with those skills, she’ll do great in HS, as long as she believes that she can.

For Boo, I would work on counteracting that social message before it can get its hands on her. Surround her with older girls and women who will say, “Boo, you like math? Me too!” and talk to her about math.

on March 16, 2009 at 7:05 pm |aishMake sure that the tutor is helping her understand the concepts and not just helping with the problems at hand. Once the students get the fundamental concepts, it’s easier for them so solve different problems.

Math is not something that can be learned by rote. Having a good handle on the fundamental concepts is very important if you want to excel at math.

on March 17, 2009 at 12:21 am |justmakingitupMathmom – I was conscious to send Maya all those social messages (like, for example, even though I really do think I suck at math, I never told her that, always acting like I loved it). I would also tell her how great she is at it, which she was at the time. I wasn’t BSing her. But I guess other social messages were stronger than anything her parents said.

The tutor didn’t give her the idea she is bad at math, the constant failing marks did. The tutor is a woman and very conscious of the girl-math thing. Her goal is to build up Maya’s ability to tackle new concepts herself, as well as make sure she’s staying on top of her school-work. (She’s very good at that, Aish, fortunately). Maya has zero math self-confidence. We figure we have at least another year of work. Our goal is that she go into high school with that confidence rebuilt.

on March 24, 2009 at 12:31 am |zoomMath is so foundational. If you miss a concept, it can prevent you from moving forward, and then, instead of thinking you missed a concept, you think you’re bad at math.

I was good at math until grade 3. Then I got tripped up by placeholders. I didn’t believe in them. Nobody could explain them to my satisfaction. So I simply refused to use them, and my answers were consistently wrong.

I concluded I was bad at math and it wasn’t until I took an IQ test in my 20s that I found out I was really, really good at math. (I also, somewhere along the way, suspended my disbelief in placeholders.)

The difference, maybe, between boys and girls is that girls learn early that humility is nice and polite. Because of this, I think we have a greater tendency to turn failure inwards and accept responsibility for it.

on March 24, 2009 at 12:31 am |zoomOh, and Boo’s obviously a genius.

on March 24, 2009 at 4:19 am |justmakingitupObviously. ;-) The next day, she doubled numbers in her head until she reached 4096, which seems pretty geniusy to me. We’ll just keep going on about how good she is in math, and hopefully that’ll help her plow through the girl/math curse.