Quora: Encourage Girls to Broaden Their Passions Into Math, Science

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Stanford University students listen while classmates make a presentation to a group of visiting venture capitalists during their technology entrepreneurship class in Stanford, California, in 2014. Computer science has the lowest proportion of women receiving bachelor degrees of all the STEM fields, the author writes. Stephen Lam/Reuters

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Answer from Barbara Oakley, Co-Instructor, Learning How to Learn, the world's largest online course:

One of the best ways to encourage more women and other underrepresented groups to pursue careers in STEM is to stop saying "follow your passion."

There's clear research evidence that boys and girls have basically the same aptitudes and abilities at math and science. But testosterone, as it turns out, has an unusual effect—it gives women an advantage! The hormone delays verbal abilities in boys (who naturally have more testosterone), and advances verbal abilities in girls, who have less testosterone.

The above image is meant to give a rough sense of the differences in development between boys and girls' abilities related to quantitative and verbal skills.

Girls can end up thinking they are better in their own verbal than their own math abilities—and on average, they're right. Boys can end up thinking they are better in their own math than their own verbal abilities, and on average, they're right. All this occurs even though boys and girls have, on average, the same abilities for math and science!

We often tell kids to follow their passion. But passions develop about what kids are good at. So when we say "follow your passion" to a girl, what we're often inadvertently saying is, "follow your verbal abilities, which on average probably come easier for you."

I always say, "Don't just follow your passions—broaden your passions." If guidance counselors were taught how important that advice is, I think it could make a significant difference in career choice.

Underrepresented groups are often truly at a horrific disadvantage in the kinds of education they experience. That's actually why I sought to create the MOOC Learning How to Learn. I figured that at the very least, if these often tremendously capable youngsters could have insight into how to hack their brains to learn better, they could help themselves past the mental roadblocks put in place by poor K-12 education. There are some amazing teachers out there in disadvantaged school districts, but unfortunately, few kids have access to them. And having good teachers really, really matters, especially if there's a home environment that's not conducive to learning.

I volunteered for five years in an inner urban school district. At first, the teachers told me their students had too troubled a home environment to be able to learn effectively. But it turned out that many of these kids had never even had any math problems corrected. Ever! Not even in school! After a few months of 20 minutes of practice with math a day using Kumon, their abilities improved remarkably. Basically, the students' own teachers had underestimated their extraordinary potential. Incidentally, some teachers denigrate the practice and repetition approach of Kumon as being antithetical to the development of true understanding in mathematics. Research is revealing the flaws of that kind of thinking. Gaining expertise in math, just like gaining expertise in any topic, involves chunking. And chunking involves a lot of practice and repetition.

I truly think that if we teach "broaden your passion" instead of "follow your passion"—and couple that with an approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes chunking in the development of expertise, we'll see dramatic improvements in STEM enrollments.

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