Janel Wilson Williams and Dr. Jacqueline Taylor Voyles, Mathematics Education
Math educators have long realized that women in general have shied away from involvement in the mathematical world. Current research in the mathematics education field studies the motivations and barriers women have to studying math. My research extends this topic to a small village in Mexico: La Estancia. By studying factors that encourage or discourage adult Mexican women from studying math in rural settings, important influences can be identified. The identification of these elements can lead to the development of important intervention programs targeted at minimizing negative influences while capitalizing on and strengthening the existing positive influences.
The Mexico Literacy Program, sponsored by the Kennedy Center for International Studies, has been sending BYU students to rural villages near Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico for over a decade. In this service-learning program students live with native families and work in association with the National Institution of Adult Education (INEA) to teach basic education to adults in the community, including literacy and math.
As part of the Mexico Literacy Program, I lived in La Estancia, Mexico, a village of less than 200 people, and taught literacy and math for three months. Just prior to leaving I administered a survey to adult women (18 years and older) regarding their desire to study math and the things that motivated them to or discouraged them from studying. The women were asked for all possible factors that influenced their decision. After conducting the survey I organized and analyzed the data with the intent to determine major motivations for and barriers to perspective female math students.
My hypothesis was that the top three reasons women wouldn’t want to study math would be: 1. lack of time 2. dislike of homework and 3. lack of confidence in their abilities to be able to learn math (characterized by the comment, “It’s too hard”). The results were somewhat surprising. 65% of the women that didn’t want to study math said it was because of a lack of time. Unexpectedly, 52% of the women that didn’t want to study math said it was because they weren’t good at memorizing. Another result that I hadn’t anticipated was that 30% of the women who were not interested in studying math attributed it to the fact that they couldn’t see well enough to study. Less surprising to me was that 30% of the women that didn’t want to study math said it was because math was “too hard.”
My hypothesis concerning the things that would motivate women to study was that the top three results would be: 1. financial motivation (improved ability to buy and sell things, to avoid being taken advantage of, to manage animals and money at home, etc.) 2. to help their children with their homework, and 3. to get a certificate saying they had completed K-6 or K-8 education. My hypothesis was correct and the exact percentages were revealing. 100% of the women that wanted to study math said they wanted to study math because it would help them financially (at home and in the market). 81% of the women who wanted to study math attributed it to a desire to help their children with their homework. 63% of the women who wanted to study math said it was because they wanted to get a certificate saying they completed a K-6 or K-8 education.
The demographic information and its relation to motivations and barriers to study math was an important part of my survey. I found that older women and younger women were less likely to study than the middle aged women (26-49 years old). 68% of the women had no education and I was surprised that the majority of them did not want to study math (58%). It was the women who had minimal education (K-6) that were more inclined to study math (64%). Unexpectedly, unmarried women were less likely to want to study (75%) than the women who were married (43%). Those who were studying with or who had previously studied with INEA (the government program that we used to teach) were more likely to want to study math than those who hadn’t.
Several problems arose during my surveying. The first was that Mexican women of La Estancia were very unaccustomed to the idea of a survey. They were uncomfortable with the “Consent Form to be a Subject” that was required by ORCA. Luckily I knew almost every woman because I had spent the past three months teaching them, or building a rapport with them, which enabled me to get more honest responses. However, it was my observation that many didn’t feel comfortable signing their name (or an X) to a page of paper that they either couldn’t read or couldn’t understand. I think in this case the consent form was a hindrance to obtaining reliable data.
Since the women were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the formal consent form I tried to make the survey as casual as possible by administering it orally so it would be more like a conversation. I learned that I needed to frequently remind them that there were no wrong answers and I wouldn’t get mad or offended by their answers. It also helped to assure them that no one else would know how they responded.
In spite of my best attempts to make the survey non-threatening, I got some strange responses. One woman answered “yes” to almost every question, in what I believe was an attempt on her part to give the response she thought I wanted. Because of anxiety over giving “bad answers” and lack of experience being interviewed in the past, I suspect that some of the data may not be fully accurate. However, I feel the data generally reflects true responses and is still worthy of consideration.
This was an invaluable learning experience for me and I feel it has potential to help future teachers in Mexico. The Mexico Literacy program participants can be better prepared to teach if they understand the motivations and barriers of adult women learners to studying math. They can better attract and retain students by understanding these factors. Perhaps this data from a small village in Mexico can help math educators be more effective in understanding more about women and their desire to study math. My findings have taught me a lot about Mexicans and women in general and their desire to study math. As a future math educator, I plan to use my findings to better encourage my students in pursuing math by minimizing negative influences and capitalizing on positive ones.