Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can a testosterone deficiency hinder mathematics learning?

We’re all going to get in a fight. –Pink, “So What”

Bringing up gender differences in learning is a great way to start a “spirited” discussion. Learning styles researcher Rita Dunn (2002) contends boys and girls tend to exhibit different learning style strengths. Boys learn visually, tactually and kinesthetically. Girls tend to be auditory. Is this because Sister is given a doll, while Brother is given a model airplane to assemble? Mark G. McGee (1979) surmised back in the dark ages of the past century, “. . . a minimum level of androgen, specifically testosterone, is required for normal expression of spatial (one component of visual perception) abilities.”

Mathematics is a visual pursuit. Processing the abstraction of numbers on a page requires visual perception. A deficit in any of the visual perception components must be considered a learning disability affecting performance in mathematics. The auditory child may not even have copied the problem correctly on her work sheet. Ask me how I know. I am unspeakably grateful to the Probabilities and Statistics instructor who understood this and accepted my “wrong” answer on a final exam. Right answer for the numbers I’d written down. Just not the right answer for the numbers he had on the test! Funny, but I still feel guilty about that “A.” I understood the concepts, just didn’t process those numbers and the man offered “grace.”

A child with average eyesight spends her days processing visually. She responds to the color and beauty of her world. She becomes adept at “reading” emotions on the faces around her. These visual perception strengths developed through cultural socialization may be capitalized on and developed. Specific experiences may be provided to develop the ability to focus on the abstractions of numbers, geometric figures on a page. Evidence of the narrowing of the gender gap in mathematics performance, probably due in part to heightened parent and educator awareness since the 1970’s, is cause for optimism. That girls, given similar experiences and opportunities, can succeed at mathematics as well as boys is no longer questioned. To assume that all girls now have those equal experiences and opportunities would be irresponsible.

Sheila Tobias says, “The teaching of math . . . suffers from being all scales and not enough music.” (2002) Amen! If providing a variety of experiences—including a good picture book now and then—in the mathematics classroom can draw an auditory child into the circle, I’m not sure I care whether it was nature or nurture that held her outside. Of course, I’m always delighted to go a few rounds.
Also delighted to report you can pre-order The Emperor’s Army by Virginia Walton Pilegard, illus. by Adrian Tans, my latest mathematical adventure picture book, from ;) Flipkart happens to be in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. I was delighted to find their ad!

Dunn, R. “Learning styles: Theory, research, and practice,” National Forum of Applied Educational Research Journal, 13.1 (2002) 3-22
McGee, M. G. Human Spatial Abilities. New York: Praeger, 1979.
Tobias, Sheila. “Rethinking Teaching Math, Science: E-interview with Sheila Tobias,” interview by Ellen R. Delisio, Education World. 12 December 2002

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