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I was gratified that my diary "Treating Boys and Girls Differently" made it to the rescued list. Thank you rescue rangers! And thanks to everyone who posted interesting comments.  One of the comments was from a mom whose math-smart, pretty, verbal daughter would never join a math team because "math team is too geeky" and full of Sheldon-like characters from the TV show Big Bang. Having been a girl just like her daughter, who now coaches a math team, I had to respond. So follow me below the fractal.

Here is the comment I am responding to:

Math team is too geeky (0+ / 0-)
for my daughter. She is a 99% math achiever, but math team kids are just too nerdy for her (think Big Bang's Sheldon). She also does not like public competition. She is also a 99% reading/writing, which the math team kids are not. She can't get those guys to say one word to her (did I mention she's really pretty too?) She is proud of her abilities and intends to use them in engineering school and medical school (she is also very fashionable with expensive taste). But the stigma of math team nerdiness and the competitions kept her away from joining the team. I bet she's not the only girl like this. She will probably not be a PhD student either. She will be looking to make money, and as the linked article really made clear, University life is not a fast, easy or reliable route to financial success. As a point of interest, I, her mother, am a mechanical engineer, with a career on hold while I raise the best daughter I can (wonderfully supportive husband with good income helps!)

by Southern Lib on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 11:54:31 PM CST

She is referring to an article I linked in my original diary that said girls are avoiding math and hard science PhDs not because they can't do well in them, but because they have figured out that medical school makes more sense.

I referenced another article about top math performing girls being concentrated at a small group of high schools. Link here. Those schools are clearly doing something different than the school attended by the commenter's daughter. It is like the two chess teams another commenter described coaching. They each have about 50 kids. One has lots of girls, and one has zero, because one had an attractive role model (his daughter), and the other didn't. It created a different culture. Math teams have different personalities as well. But whether your child likes or dislikes the math team available to them, the math involved in the good competitions (more on that later) is simply much better.

The Sheldon's of the world certainly are attracted to competitive math, and are over-represented at the highest levels. But lots of regular kids are attracted too, including pretty girls, highly social boys, and kids who do not care about competing. The reason is that competition math is generally much more interesting and creative than standard curriculum math. Good competition problems are like little puzzles. There may be some counter-intuitive way of looking at it that makes an impossible problem suddenly easy. It expands the mind in a way that leads to better problem solving in general, not just for math problems.

Another difference is that competition math mixes together different strands of mathematics in the same contest, or even in the same problem. It is much less linear that way than traditional school math. A good math team works like an immersion language program. Everything is coming at you at once, and the amount you comprehend increases over time. Traditional classroom math is like traditional classroom foreign language instruction - present tense this month, past tense next month, 50 vocabulary words per week. Math text books reflect this. You are fed little bits at a time, and expected to understand all of it before moving on. Many learners do better, in math and in foreign language, with more of an immersion approach.

Math textbooks are usually written by teachers, for teachers, and in particular, for teachers who may not be very good at math. It is extremely formulaic. Kids who understand the chapter should be able to answer all the problems at the end. Kids are expected to understand the material in chapter 1 before they move to chapter 2. Materials written from a problem solving approach (another term for the type of math the good competitions do) are written by and for people who love math, and throws that out. On your first pass through a set of problems, maybe you can only do half. But as you get experience, you get better and better at it and there are more problems you can do. I tell my kids there is no such thing as a "wrong" problem, only a problem they are still working on. The same problem, or a similar one, will come around again when the kid has more experience, and they are more likely to get it.

The Society of Professional Engineers sponsors a terrific program called Mathcounts for middle schools. There is a Mathcounts competition, and some kids are heavily ino that. But the main point to the organization's efforts is that standard math textbooks and classes are turning kids off at the middle school level. Mathcounts-type problem solving is a vastly superior way for all kids to learn math. It also lends itself much more to working collaboratively, which is an important life skill. Oh, and the problems are all word problems. Kids need to have good verbal skills and use language precisely.

That does not mean that all math teams live up to the potential of the material. Many don't, because they are led by adults who cannot get out of the mindset of a traditional math class. And all competitions are not equal either. The good ones require very deep thinking, and are not just about fast mental calculations

For more than you could possibly digest about this approach to math, including materials, courses, articles, go to the Art of Problem Solving website here . I particularly recommend this article , written by one of the founders of the website. It talks more about the difference between competition, or problem-solving math, versus traditional school math. Ignore the title, it is about much more than calculus. (I have no association with any of these links, btw)

A bonus link, if you have gotten this far, is here. It is an interesting, but very long essay by a mathematician bemoaning the way that math is traditionally taught in schools. He makes analogies to what it would look like if we taught music and other subjects the same way, and how ridiculous that would look.

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