Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai founded MathsThroughStories.org, a non-profit research-based initiative which sets out to encourage teachers and parents globally to help children learn mathematics more effectively and, equally important, more enjoyably through storytelling. The website offers various evidence-based and freely available resources, including support for children to make their own stories. One of the research projects he leads, Representation of Girls and Women in Mathematics-specific Picturebooks, finds that female characters are significantly underrepresented in mathematical picturebooks when compared to their male counterparts.
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your research that led to this project? In particular, why is it important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in learning mathematics through storytelling?
MathsThroughStories.org draws from a body of research over the past three decades that highlights pedagogical benefits of teaching mathematical concepts through storytelling, particularly in the form of story-picture books. One of these research projects has been conducted in a few different countries (including England, Ireland, and Malta). It is an investigation into teachers’ self-reported frequency of using story-picture books in their mathematics instruction as well as their perceived barriers to (and perceived enablers for) the integration of stories in mathematics teaching. A key finding is that while early years practitioners regularly make use of storytelling as part of their daily mathematics teaching, teachers of primary (elementary) school children (5-11 years old) are much less aware of such teaching approach. The principal reported barrier is the lack of awareness (and hence pedagogical knowledge) of how story-picture books can be incorporated into mathematics teaching. Thus, MathsThroughStories.org wants to help raise teachers’ awareness in this area, and to essentially encourage them in giving this approach a go.
In terms of why it is important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in mathematical stories, I draw from the idea of Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada and Ross (1972), that picture books are read to children when they are most impressionable and when they are forming their self-images and future expectations of themselves. Imagine a classroom where the teacher only reads mathematical stories where boys and men are always the protagonist solving problems using their mathematical knowledge and skills, while girls and women are secondary characters lurking behind a tree. If you are a girl listening only to stories with such characteristics, how would you see yourself in relation to mathematics now and in the future? Thus, as educators and parents, we need to critically examine what otherwise seems to be a very colourful, cute and harmless educational resource.
Your research uses Claudie Solar’s feminist pedagogy to empower girls in their mathematics learning. Can you start by briefly telling us why this feminist framework is important to understanding gender inequality in representations of story-picture books?
Solar’s (1995) feminist pedagogy framework is a useful tool to help us visualize what mathematics teaching, learning and curriculum that is inclusive to girls and women might look like. It focuses on four key aspects: inclusion (versus omission); speech (versus silence); active participation (versus passivity); empowerment (versus powerlessness).
The first two aspects (i.e. inclusion and speech) are particularly useful in helping frame my research. The goal of my study is about exploring and revealing the extent to which female characters are presented (or underrepresented) in mathematical story-picture books. I measure this by using a number of indicators, one of which is the average amount of spoken dialogue assigned to male and female characters per book (as measured in the number of words). This particular indicator resonates well with the focus of ‘speech (versus silence)’ aspect of Solar’s framework, for example.
I think not only is this framework useful for researchers like me who are interested in exploring gender representation, it is also useful for mathematics teachers and curriculum designers to bear in mind ways to make mathematics teaching and curriculum more inclusive and relatable to girls and women.
Still on your Representation of Girls and Women study, can you share with us some of the most significant findings of your study on girls’ visibility in mathematical story-picture boos? There are some interesting patterns about how gender appears on covers, and the dialogue and portrayal of girls vs boys in these books.
Sure, but first let me say that this is still an on-going piece of research and has not been published in any peer-reviewed research journal yet, so do take that into account.
In brief, I have used four key indicators to examine gender representation in 64 randomly-selected mathematical story-picture books that meet a number of selection criteria. The first and second indicators measure the extent to which male and female characters appear in book titles and front covers respectively. In relation to the former, while 38 of 64 books contained no gender identifier (e.g. the book ‘Less Than Zero’), as many as 23 of the remaining 26 books contained only a male name(s) (e.g. the books ‘Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi’ and ‘Albert Adds Up!’). Only three books contained a female name(s); for example, ‘Minnie’s Diner: A Multiplying Menu’.
The second indicator (gender representation on front cover images) brings some good and bad news. While the front cover of over half of the books (35 out of 64) features both male and female characters, the majority of the remaining books (22 out of the remaining 29 books) feature only male character(s), and only a few (7 out of the remaining 29 books) features female characters.
The third indicator examines the average number of male and female characters with spoken dialogue per book. On average, I have found that there are around 3.38 male characters with dialogue per book versus only 2.27 female characters with dialogue per book. Alternatively put, male characters with spoken dialogue featured 1.49 times more than their female counterparts, and such difference is statistically significant. The fourth and final indicator examines the amount of spoken dialogue assigned to male and female characters. On average, I have found that while male characters are assigned around 245.70 words per book, female characters are only assigned 166.27 words per book. Alternatively put, male characters are featured 1.48 times more often than their female counterparts in terms of number of spoken dialogue words assigned to them. Again, such difference is statistically significant.
It soon becomes apparent that regardless of which indicators we are using, the underrepresentation of female characters in mathematical story-picture books does exist and need to be highlighted.
Your research on gender representation also draws on Ernest’s reproductive cycle of gender inequality (above) in mathematics education This work shows how gender stereotypes create gender inequality, which in turn feeds into lower participation in mathematics and fewer opportunities in learning and careers. What are some practical steps that mathematics educators can take to help break this cycle?
An excellent question! There are many actions that teachers (and parents) can take to help break this cycle. In the context of my research, it would be that they are selective in choosing mathematical story-picture books that they buy and read to their children. Specifically, they should avoid any mathematical story-picture books that reinforce the idea that only boys and men have mathematical knowledge and skills to save the day, while girls and women are waiting to be saved. Better still, girls (and boys) should be given opportunities to create their own mini mathematical story-picture books. Here, girls are empowered to choose their own characters. If there aren’t enough mathematical story-picture books out there in the market with strong female protagonists, then girls can create ones themselves. Perhaps, they might even choose themselves as being the protagonist. I would argue that the more opportunities girls are given to associate themselves centrally and positively with mathematics, the more likely the issues described by Ernest will be addressed. MathsThroughStories.org provides some support for teachers and parents to help their children create their own mini mathematical story-picture books here.
Name one historical woman in mathematics you think everyone should know about that they may not have heard of. Why is she important?
I hope it won’t be too inappropriate for me to consider the great Katherine Johnson as a ‘historical woman’. While she is still alive and well (less than seven months away from reaching her 100th birthday), the legacy that she is known for is truly historical. Back in 1950s where the use of computers as we know of today to help calculate trajectories for NASA missions was very limited, Katherine served as a ‘human computer’ to either verify machine-based calculation or to come up with her own calculation when machines failed to do so. What is also remarkable about Katherine, an African-American, is that she excelled in her career even during the height of racial tension in the USA. Not only had she had to contend with a degree of sexism, but also racial prejudices. Thus, when we look back at her achievements through these lens, it becomes even more apparent just an amazing person she is. I hope the recent non-fiction book about her and her fellow female African-American mathematicians at NASA called ‘Hidden Figures’, and later a Hollywood film by the same name, help more people like me, who until recently had never heard of her, become more aware of Katherine’s (and her colleagues’) incredible mathematical achievement.
Who are the living women who have had most significant impact on your development as an educator and researcher and what did they teach you?
In terms of living women who have influenced my research perspectives on gender and (mathematics) education, I would say Heather Mendick, whom I have been working with over the past three years as executive members of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics (BSRLM). One of the books she wrote, ‘Masculinities in Mathematics‘, has helped me to better understand how the alignment of mathematics with masculinity can be problematic for girls and women studying the subject, and how more need to be done to address this issue.
What would be the most significant take away from your body of research on gender in mathematics that we can all start working on today?
The first take way is for us as a society to acknowledge the fact that there is indeed gender disparity existing in mathematical story-picture books. Giving me this privilege to be interviewed by STEM Women is one such way. Are there any other ways that STEM Women’s readers can help raise this issue?
The second take away is for us to help authors (and publishers) see what gender disparity in mathematical story-picture books looks like. We should encourage them to study examples of stories where either there is a strong female protagonist (see two examples below) or ones with equal contribution of both male and female characters in using their mathematical knowledge and skills to solve problems.
Finally, I would encourage networks like STEM Women, who are already well placed to write factually-correct mathematical stories, to create mathematical story-picture books with strong female protagonists. My initiative (MathsThroughStories.org) would be happy to support this in anyway we can. As a society, we could do with more mathematical stories like that.
Can you recommend one or two of your favourite mathematical story-picture books to promote gender equity and diversity?
The former has a strong female character, named Holly, who uses her knowledge of weights to outsmart an unfair dragon and to stop it from blocking villagers to harvest their beloved berries. The latter is about a young village girl named Rani who devised a clever plan to get even with a selfish raja. The raja has decreed that the people in his province, the majority of whom are rice farmers, must give nearly all of their rice to him every year. During the famine, he refuses to let them have some of the rice he has been collecting from them. Rani then finds a way to use her knowledge of doubling to get the raja to happily, though unknowingly, give her and her fellow villagers one billion grains of rice in just thirty days.
While both of these stories focus on different mathematical topics, they have the same underlying message: female protagonists have the power to use their mathematical knowledge and skills to address the unfair treatment of selfish characters, in order to do good for their respective community. I very much like this kind of mathematical stories where young readers (both males and females) are taught from an early age that girls and women can too save the day using their mathematical prowess.
Dr. Trakulphadetkrai’s research interests are centred around the use of story-picture books to help teachers and parents develop their children’s mathematical understanding. In addition to his lectureship in Primary Mathematics Education at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education (UK), Dr. Trakulphadetkrai also currently serves as an executive member of a number of national mathematics education organisations in the UK.