Does the thought of doing long division, or solving a bit of algebra give you the shivers? You’re likely to have maths anxiety. In our recent research, my colleagues and I found that in 80% of countries, girls have more negative feelings towards maths than boys.
But this higher level of maths anxiety in girls is not justified by their actual level of performance and may put them off continuing a career in maths-related subjects, such as physics and computer science.
Our research showed that there are considerable international differences in the degree to which boys and girls suffer from maths anxiety. The figure below shows maths anxiety scores in ten countries from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests performance in maths, reading and science in 15-year-olds around the world. Higher scores on the graph indicate higher levels of mathematics anxiety. Girls in the countries on the left side of the figure have a higher level of mathematics anxiety than boys.
Examples of countries with a large gender gap (left) and a countries with no statistically significant gender gap (right) in mathematics anxiety. Red bars indicate data of girls and blue of boys in the OECD’s 2012 PISA. Gijsbert Stoet
In the UK and other gender-equal developed countries, the gender difference is relative high. Paradoxically, we cannot really learn much from countries such as Albania, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Romania or Turkey, where this gender difference is nonexistent or small. This is because these countries have lower overall maths scores, they have higher overall maths anxiety, and they typically score lower on gender equality and human development.
Fortunately, we know at the very least that general improvements in maths performance will be associated with lower levels of maths anxiety. Gender differences in maths anxiety are hard to eradicate, yet a good start can be made by creating a well-planned and well-supported educational system, including highly qualified, well-paid and respected teachers, and well-maintained school facilities. With this investment, maths anxiety can possibly be reduced to levels where it might no longer form a psychological barrier for further study of science, mathematics, engineering or technology (STEM) subjects.
But there is still an overall general shortage of students in these subjects. Not only is there a labour shortage among computer programmers and engineers, there is also a severe shortage among teachers in those subjects. This problem is so severe that in 2015 the UK government created financial incentives for students to become teachers in maths and physics. The situation in other Western countries is similar: 52% of New York schools cannot offer physics due to the teacher shortage, while Germany reports general difficulties with recruiting physics teachers.
I believe that one of the main reasons for the low enrolment in non-organic STEM subjects – the study of non-living matter, such as physics or computing – is that children are allowed to drop these subjects too early, well before they have experienced the subjects sufficiently to make informed and rational decisions about their future career track.
Other researchers have also raised this issue, arguing that 14-year olds are simply not mature enough to make life-determining choices about which GCSE subjects to take. A recent Scottish survey among 12-year old Scottish girls confirmed that they are often misguided about what STEM subjects can mean.
Change the curriculum
Instead of giving children the option to drop difficult but important subjects such as maths and physics, in England and Wales we should make the GCSE subjects physics, engineering, and computing compulsory until age 16 and make mathematics compulsory at A-Level – the exams most students take when the leave school or college at 18-years-old. Currently, maths is compulsory in the UK until age 16 while physics is optional.
The good thing is that the government has already taken some steps in the right direction. For example, since 2013, students in England who did not perform well in maths in the GSCEs need to study it until age 18 so that they will end up with at least a reasonable GCSE-level maths skill. Nonetheless, internationally, the UK has relatively few 16-18 year olds choosing maths at A-Level, and there is a lot we can learn from other countries.
In China, physics is compulsory until age 16 and maths all the way through secondary education. The Chinese do an impressive job in training their children and they lead the international education league tables (even though not all of China is included).
The Chinese educational system surely has its own challenges, such as a gap in educational opportunities between those in rural and urban areas. Nevertheless, Chinese girls are excellent in maths and science – and the Chinese generally are rapidly expanding their role in the science and technology sector.
If the UK and other Western nations don’t copy the Chinese approach to education, we might well come to regret it soon. A lack of investment in teaching the subjects that will be essential in a technology-driven world, means we risk losing the capacity to play a leading role in the development and production of cutting edge technology.
Unfortunately, even in the current system, the UK does not have enough qualified physics teachers, so it will be impossible to make the subject compulsory immediately – that is how far behind we and other Western nations are. We better get working on this now, before it is too late.