For International Maths Day, we talked to Lynne McClure – former maths teacher and current Head of Mathematics Solutions for the Cambridge Partnership for Education – about her experience with gender stereotyping in maths education.
Lynne has always been involved in mathematics education in one form or another. She started as a secondary teacher and later morphed into a primary head teacher. She also spent many years leading initial teacher education at the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh. For ten years, she ran her own consultancy, supporting teachers, designers, researchers and policymakers in mathematics education, both in the UK and internationally.
More recently, Lynne moved to Cambridge to take up the role of Director of NRICH and subsequently that of Director of Underground Maths. She then moved almost seamlessly to lead Cambridge Mathematics for seven years until August 2022. She is now Head of Mathematics Solutions at Cambridge Partnership for Education.
- What is it that you enjoy about maths?
I’ve always loved the way you can get to a solution via a variety of ways, and usually can tell if that solution is correct. I particularly love geometry as for me geometrical questions are a type of puzzle from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction. I love opening learners’ eyes to the beauty of the subject, especially those who are disinterested or think maths is irrelevant.
- Did you have any good role models around maths whilst growing up?
Both my parents were teachers, my father a maths teacher. He instilled in me a love of the subject and would often show me the maths he was teaching in secondary school just to give me a glimpse of how much more I, as a primary pupil, would be introduced to later on.
- How did you get into teaching maths?
I studied psychology at university as, although I loved maths, I didn’t feel I was sufficiently proficient to follow a maths degree. I wanted to be an educational psychologist which meant I needed to teach a range of ages in preparation for further study. But once I started teaching I realised I had found my happy place!
- What attributes make a great mathematician?
Depends what you mean by great! Those exceptional individuals who win international prizes such as the Fields Medal have amazing tenacity as well as an amazing facility.
For me, great young mathematicians are those who ask mathematical questions as well as answering them, who are curious about the why as well as the what and ‘do’ maths for pleasure outside the classroom. And great teachers of maths encourage those behaviours.
- Have you faced any challenges as a result of your gender, in the maths education world?
When I first started teaching – a long time ago – there were lots of awful stereotypes to which women teachers were supposed to adhere but I’m happy to say I was pretty independent and gave as good as I got. It didn’t always make me popular but I was confident enough to ignore negative attitudes. In the roles I have had in the past thirty or so years I can’t recall any real challenges – but perhaps I am lucky!
- Have you seen an impact of gender stereotyping in primary maths education?
I ran a research project in Oxford where I invited a group of schools each to send four year six students – two girls and two boys – to a series of maths club meetings where we would explore some interesting ideas. I asked the teachers – incidentally all women – to identify the highly attaining students in their classes.
In a follow up session with the teachers I asked them what criteria they had used to identify the four students. The results were rather alarming – girls were chosen if their maths was neat and tidy and they worked hard. Boys were identified by completely different criteria – they showed a bit of a spark and it didn’t matter if they weren’t well-behaved or worked in a tidy fashion. When we discussed this as a group the teachers realised these were very different criteria and, I think, were quite shocked that they had applied these without realising what they were doing.
“Girls were chosen if their maths was neat and tidy and they worked hard. Boys were identified [if] they showed a bit of a spark: it didn’t matter if they weren’t well-behaved or worked in a tidy fashion.”
- Have you done anything as an educator to combat gender stereotyping in maths education?
I often tell that story to see what student teachers think about it. We talk about other ways in which gender stereotyping has been evident/might be evident in the classroom as a way of alerting them in advance. And I do check that resources I use are appropriate – and that is much easier now than it used to be.
- Why do you think it’s important to challenge gender stereotyping in maths education?
In the UK we have a massive shortage of skilled workforce in STEM occupations, and those that do follow a STEM career are mostly men. Fewer girls than boys take A level maths and even fewer follow STEM degree courses and these choices are based on years of thinking they are either not as good as the boys, or that there is no future for women in STEM jobs. It’s really important to offer good role models and to do this when students are young enough for these to make a lasting impression.
“Fewer girls than boys take A level maths and even fewer follow STEM degree courses. These choices are based on years of thinking they are either not as good as the boys, or that there is no future for women in STEM jobs.”
- What more can be done to challenge gender stereotyping in maths education – particularly at primary level?
We need to call out female public figures who claim it’s OK to be poor at maths – it really isn’t! And ensure that the models and resources we provide in school offer appropriate and unequivocal messages – Maths4Girls is doing this effectively but we need more….