How students’ math and gender identities impact their group work 

Working in groups can provide social and academic benefits for students, however, these opportunities are not always equally distributed among all group members. Research suggests that this inequality may be a result of students’ social identities (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity), and how these play out in the time and context of the situation. These factors influence the roles and ways of interacting that the students take on, particularly leadership roles.

During group work in mathematics classrooms, this dynamic negotiation can be also impacted by students’ mathematics identities – how they think about their abilities and their confidence in math. How students work with each other while solving math problems in groups can affect the quality of their learning. Teachers must therefore be aware of how students’ engagement with math can be influenced by their social identities as well as their mathematics identities.

Working with 236 students in linguistically and ethnically diverse schools, Werklund undergraduate student and PURE award winner Silvana Valera and her supervisor Dr. Miwa Aoki Takeuchi surveyed and interviewed students, to uncover their identities and preferences for group work. Silvana added the lens of gender and cultural socialization to the analysis and for her project more closely analyzed the interactions of four mixed-gender groups.

Initially, the team analyzed the selected groups’ interactions for any relationships between gender and group experiences. The researchers were interested by how different aspects of student identities – specifically gender – influenced the group’s dynamic, and how the interactions played out.

“I am good at math”

While previous research has noted gender differences in leadership roles, the research team found no clear pattern in gender and leadership. In this study, girls took on leadership roles as often as boys. Overall, gender was not a determining factor for how students felt about math – with both boys and girls expressing similar rates of likes and dislikes.

Mathematics identities were more influential than gender alone in group work situations. Students with positive math identities, that is, those who saw themselves as good at math, took more leadership roles than those with negative math identities. This means that these students were more likely to offer to help other students, and to help guide the group’s problem-solving approach.

When students with positive and negative identities were paired, those with positive math identities were more likely to take on leadership roles and to assist others in their group. In groups where all students had negative math identities, the researchers saw that no one took on a consistent leadership role. In other words, if no students in a group had a positive math identity, the group’s learning suffered.

Complicating Gender Norms

In one group, the girls of the group openly expressed preferring to work with students of their own gender. This affected how the group interacted with each other, given that it was mixed-gender. The girls talked amongst themselves, and sat away from the boy in their group. Since the teacher usually divided the groups by gender, this reinforced the idea that boys and girls work separately, and these gender norms shaped the students’ ways of collaborating. These divisions could also be influenced culturally, based on traditional gender roles and expectations of the students’ background.

Building Positive Mathematics Identities and Breaking Down Gender Norms

Mathematics identities change over time, and in different situations. Teachers need to help build well-rounded, positive mathematics identities in their students to promote success. Teachers should consider how they assign groups, and the influence this has on student learning. Since school is only a portion of a student’s life, parents also have a significant role in reinforcing positive math identities. Consistent messaging and support from both school and home can foster students’ leadership and agency in mathematics learning.

Lastly, school practices such as forming groups using the gender binary can socialize students into the unsustainable norm that boys and girls work separately. It is important that teachers remain aware of the norms they are perpetuating in their classrooms and how this can influence mathematics learning.

*The larger study (“Interaction and collaboration for mathematics learning in diverse Canadian classrooms” PI: Miwa Aoki Takeuchi) was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Insight Development Grants)*