Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How Parents' Influence Kids' Academic Interests

Here's some information on a recent University of Michigan study.
In a study she presented recently at a campus meeting, Davis-Kean and colleagues analyzed how parents' values and attitudes affect children's math performance and later interest, and how these attitudes vary by the child's gender. They used data from a longitudinal study of more than 800 children and a large group of their parents that began in 1987 and continued through 2000.

They found that parents provided more math-supportive environments for their sons than for their daughters, including buying more math and science toys for the boys. They also spent more time on math and science activities with their sons than with their daughters.
The article goes on to say that girls' interest in math decreases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase, whereas boys' interest in math increases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase.

You can read more here.

I've never been big on the toy aspect of this, though William and I do play a lot of thinking games (Chess, Pente, Checkers, etc.), we play and explore outside in the rain and sunshine, and we READ, READ, READ. There are many good books out there that use math and science concepts as natural (seamless?) parts of the story. This just seems to me what we should be doing with ALL kids, not just boys, and I think Moms can do this just as well as Dads.

The interesting sidebar here for me is that for years I was immersed in studying data from international math and science studies (like TIMSS). The fourth and eighth grade student data I examined included responses on a questionnaire where kids described parental education, support and attitudes. There was a direct correlation between the variables hours of study, attitudes towards subject, academic performance and parental support. Not surprisingly, parents in countries where math and science performance far outscored the US believed that gender and ability were not predictors of success, only effort. My recent trip to China only served to underscore this point. The students we met with all talked about effort being the key to their success, not natural ability.

I encourage parents and teachers alike to think about the message we send to kids regarding their ability to do well in math and science. I work hard to get my preservice teachers to embrace the notion that ALL kids, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender can do well in these subjects, and encourage them to use even the smallest means to encourage their love for them. This can be as simple as changing the name line on a handout to read mathematician or scientist. A lot can be said for the power of a child reading his or her name, day in and day out, next to one of these titles. It also means that we must teach in ways that allow kids to see the beauty of math and science, their connectedness to other areas of the curriculum and the profound value of them in our lives everyday. This may sound like a tall order, but great teachers and parents can make it happen.

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