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June 2, 2009

Girls aren't stupid, we're just not as lazy as the boys

LiveScience reports that a new review of recent studies finds that girls are not more stupid than boys - even when it comes to math.

I didn't take the time to comment last time, when The Boston Globe presented the idea that women just aren't into math.

Like I've said before: I don't know how mentally different men and women really are.  I just know about my own experiences here.

So let's talk about me for a bit. And the fact that guys are lazy.

New scientific discoveries on female vs. male brains don't make me better or worse at what I do. They don't change my excellent math grades. And they don't change the fact that despite those math grades, I was very aware growing up that I was not good at math. Because I was good at writing, and I was "creative", and at least when I was a kid, we were told we couldn't do it all.

I was good at the kind of things that involved neat handwriting, meticulous note-taking, extensive newspaper- and novel-reading and the ability to memorize text. My great strength all the way through high school was the ability to read something once (fast) and remember it.  Even with that skill, if you factor in all the free time I spent reading useful stuff, being good at school took up a lot of my time.

Math can be much less labor-intensive. Compared to many other subjects - at least the way they are taught at an elementary and up to high school level in Norway - math is less about "plodding through" and less about already having read something, and more about just getting it. It's logic.

I'm not saying that all aspects of mathematics are like this. But in my personal experience (in Norway, let's say grades six up to high school graduation), math works for the lazy, but smart. History doesn't.

As my dad told me the first of a million times he explained why I should be good at math: "If the whole world stopped existing tomorrow, one plus one would still be two. Even if we didn't have a language with which to explain this, even if there were nothing left to count, 1 + 1 = 2 would still be fundamentally true."

Learning new math skills requires existing knowledge of something, obviously. But it doesn't require that you stay updated on current news or know how to spell your vocabulary words correctly - or even legibly. For a smart, but lazy teenager, math class requires that you show up, pay attention and work on math problems as long as the teacher is looking. And even if the teacher hates you, because you're an obnoxious trouble-making bully, if your answers are right, they can't fail you.

I was smart and lazy about math, and smart and hard-working about languages and social studies. So I was good at languages and social studies. One of the smartest guys in my middle school class was smart and lazy about everything, and so he was good at math.

Some Norwegians have worried that Norwegian schools only work for girls (Åsmund B. Gjerde, who was editor-in-chief of argument at the time, was not worried). But for the sake of argument (ugh, pun not intended), let's believe people who say that little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, can sit still and make teachers like them, have legible hand-writing, an attention span that allows them to read a lot, and that's why we all grow up to complain about the lack of guys in our university classes. I think the smart little boys pick up some math skills, even if the snips and snails and puppy-dog tails* keep them from writing A+ short stories or brilliant essays about current events as compared to history.

Does this make sense at all?

* Little boys grow up to be young men, and they are made of "Sighs and leers and crocodile tears". According to Mother Goose.

Oh, and by the way:

Posted by Julie at June 2, 2009 11:40 PM

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"math is ... more about just getting it. It's logic."

A contrast: In the countries with the richest mathematics education (the one in Norway is the most impoverished) the students who are interested in math spend, starting in Grade 5 and through high school, about 10,000 hours solving non-standard problems - this because this solving/modeling leads to a much deeper
and more flexible understanding of the mathematical phenomena and properties.

Posted by: Erik Syring at June 3, 2009 2:32 AM