Mathematics and English - stereotyped domains? The public's views

Year: 2012

Author: Forgasz, Helen, Leder, Gilah

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Mathematics is a gatekeeper to many tertiary pathways and career opportunities. Among the multiple factors linked to students' decisions to choose or reject longer term studies in mathematics are societal beliefs about the importance and utility of mathematics. Yet, surprisingly, the public's views about mathematics are sought directly all too rarely. In this paper we report on data gathered from the general public via an innovative and pervasive recruitment tool, the social network site Facebook. The advertisement used was designed through Facebook's commercial advertising campaign system which allows particular groups to be targeted. Our focus was on Australian respondents aged 18 and over, but completed surveys from participants in other countries were also received - a confirmation of Facebook's extensive coverage. To maximize cooperation and completion rates, the Facebook survey was limited to 14 core items which focused on the learning of mathematics at school; perceived changes in the delivery of school mathematics; beliefs about boys and girls and mathematics, their perceived facilities with calculators and computers, and their suitability for particular careers. Some background information was also gathered: age-range, gender, and place of residence (Australia and if not, what country). As well as readily codable responses such as "yes", "no", "don't know", "boys", "girls", "the same", respondents were encouraged to explain the reason for their answer. To provide a context for the data on mathematics, a parallel survey seeking views about English was also prepared and launched via Facebook. Financial constraints influenced the sample size able to be obtained through Facebook's competitive advertising system. Just over 300 participants (161 males and 146 females) responded to the mathematics advertisement; 200 (83 males and 123 females) to the English advertisement. Several indicative findings follow.

Both mathematics and English had generally been liked at school. Many in both groups indicated that they had been good at the subject - mathematics or English - put forward in their survey. The persistence of gender stereotyping in the community was captured, with girls often thought to be better than boys at English, boys better than girls at mathematics. Responses to an item common to both surveys illustrate this further. In both groups 2% believed that girls were better at using computers; approximately 40% nominated boys as superior, while the remaining (half) in each group considered boys and girls to be equally proficient.