# Gap-gazing, trailblazing, and bar raising

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- Gap-gazing, trailblazing, and bar raising

## Gap-gazing, trailblazing, and bar raising

A recent report by Matthew Carroll (2023)^{i} reviewed sex gaps in education in England in some detail. Of particular interest is that mathematics education remains – and perhaps has become even more of – an outlier, a blip, a curiosity when it comes to finding patterns in the data. Mathematics appears to ‘behave’ differently to other subjects, at least when it comes to sex differences:

One subject that showed a different pattern across all age groups was Maths. From EYFS assessments to A level grades, attainment at the highest levels showed gaps in favour of males. This was not seen at lower or moderate attainment levels, where the gap was still female-favoured (or, at KS2, roughly equal). Nevertheless, whether the “exceeding expectations” level at EYFS, or A/A* grades at A level, higher percentages of males were seen to achieve these standards. Hence, once again following the patterns established in existing literature (e.g., Bahar, 2021; Encinas-Martín & Cherian, 2023), Maths behaved differently from every other subject or area of learning assessed. (p. 91)

Many questions are raised here, perhaps the most central of which is “Why is mathematics unlike other subjects when it comes to sex differences?”

Girelli (2023)^{ii} suggests that mathematics education receives more attention than other subjects due to its connection with economic success, as well as the prevalence of popular mathematics myths such as the ‘maths genius’ image and negative conceptions of mathematics as cold, difficult, abstract and masculine, which reproduce themselves at school, in the home and in the media. They critique the OECD’s PISA questionnaire for asking questions such as whether students “get very tense or nervous doing mathematics” which by their very emphasis may bias students towards making these negative connections (p. 685).

We have been asking questions about the ‘gap’ in male attainment versus female attainment in mathematics education for a very long time (e.g., Fennema & Sherman, 1977)^{iii}. I suspect most schools, if not most classes, track this data. Local authorities certainly do. The OECD does. Governments do. People sit on panels and sigh and say, “What CAN we do about the sex (or gender) gap in mathematics education?”

What if we are asking the wrong questions?

McGraw et al. (2019)^{iv} report that this situation is very different in other countries, such as Jordan, where girls outperform boys at all levels and in all subjects. They suggest that “there may be multiple reasons why girls in Jordan academically outperform boys” (p. 1943), and mention cultural factors that may afford girls more opportunities to study than boys and that may also have a positive effect on the quality of girls’ education from Grade 4 onwards, when pupils are separated into single-sex schools. This example suggests that simply measuring attainment and analysing by the binary measure of ‘girls versus boys’ may not reveal – and may in fact obscure – important variables and mechanisms at play in mathematics classrooms when it comes to equity.

Work in the field of equity in mathematics education posits that simply questioning whether boys or girls are more highly-attaining in mathematics, and in particular asking about the direction and size of the gap, may not support examinations of equity that lead to real change for students (e.g., Gutierrez, 2008)^{v}. Researchers recommend other approaches, such as using lenses of intersectionality – an analytical disposition for examining how overlapping systems of power shape unique experiences of oppression and agency – to shed light on structural forces in mathematics learning (Levya & Joseph, 2023)^{vi}.

Gutierrez (2008)^{v} offers several critiques of this ‘gap-gazing’: that it focuses attention on between-group difference as opposed to within-group difference; that it reifies the gap as a kind of truth; that it moves the spotlight away from hierarchies; that it often relies on the problematic notion of ‘intelligence’; that there are many problems with testing reflecting ‘attainment’; that it ignores intersectionality, the multiple identities and agency of students; that it frames marginalised students only by comparison with and deviance from, and not as worth studying in their own right; that it places groups in opposition to one another, like a zero-sum game; and that the term ‘gap’ is used as a sanitised proxy for discussing certain groups of students without naming them.

As researchers such as Girelli (2023)^{ii} suggest, not only answers but questions themselves (i.e., how we frame our research in terms of ‘problems’) have the potential to influence perceptions about mathematics:

[Researchers can] amplify some of the most harmful math myths by pushing some catching lines of research and leaving to the media an uncontrolled sensationalization of their findings. The literature abounds of studies focusing on math anxiety's psychological and neural correlates, legitimating math-negative emotions' development and persistence. (p. 685)

What if we did not use the term ‘gap’ to describe differences in attainment, but instead phrases such as ‘testing bias’? What if we moved away from studying the gaps (absence, based on deficit thinking) and began to study blockages and the barriers, or even the flows and the connections (presence), both of which can be considered antonyms for ‘gap’?

**Reference:**

- Carroll, M. (2023).
*Sex gaps in education*. Cambridge University Press & Assessment. - Girelli, L. (2023). What does gender has to do with math? Complex questions require complex answers.
*Journal of Neuroscience Research, 101*(5), 679–688. - Fennema, E., & Sherman, J. (1977). Sex-related differences in mathematics achievement, spatial visualization and affective factors.
*American Educational Research Journal, 14*(1), 51–71 - McGraw, R., Piatek-Jimenez, K., Wiest, L., Dias, A., Lessa Gonçalves, H. J., Hall, J., Hodge, A., Kersey, B., & Rubel, L. (2019). Working group on gender and sexuality in mathematics education: Experiences of people across cultures [Paper presentation]. In S. Otten, A. G. Candela, Z. de Araujo, C. Haines & C. Munter (Eds.),
*Proceedings of the forty-first annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education*(pp. 1940–1953). PME-NA. - Gutiérrez, R. (2008). A “gap-gazing” fetish in mathematics education? Problematizing research on the achievement gap.
*Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 39*(4), 357–364. - Leyva, L. A., & Joseph, N. M. (2023). Intersectionality as a lens for linguistic justice in mathematics learning.
*ZDM – Mathematics Education, 55*(6), 1187–1197.

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