Follow up on: math contests kind of suck
I have been really impressed with the comments and thoughts of my first post about how I think math contests kind of suck. Thinking about it some more, I’d like to make two corrections to my original thoughts as well as a clarification.
The first correction is that it’s the MAA, not the NSF, that mysteriously only seems to support contests, or at least for the most part supports contests and not enrichment. The NSF, as has been pointed out in the comments, mysteriously supports primarily college-level math enrichment (through REUs) instead of high-school level stuff, but that’s a different mystery.
The second correction is that, instead of saying about contests “most people don’t get close to winning, and in particular give those people the impression that because they lost a contest they don’t “have it” when it comes to math,” I should have said, “most people don’t get close to winning, and for the subset of people who care about winning, in gives them the impression that because they lost a contest they don’t “have it” when it comes to math.” In other words, I’m not discussing the subpopulation who don’t care if they win. (To those people I’d say: you are rare and you are lucky.)
Except I am discussing them, and this is where the clarification comes in. My point about girls is this: girls are more likely to be in the subpopulation of kids who care, and therefore more likely to be disappointed in themselves. In fact I would add that girls are more likely to underestimate their performance, even if it was great, and moreover they are more likely to do badly in the presence of the negative stereotype that tells them girls aren’t good at math.
These are all statistical statements. In particular, an argument that won’t convince me I’m wrong is something like: I’m a guy and I didn’t care if I won or lost and I loved (or hated) contests. That just means you are not in the population of kids I am talking about. Another argument that won’t convince me I’m wrong goes like this: I’m a guy and I cared and I did awesome. In fact won’t even really change my mind if a woman writes and said she cared and did badly (or well) but loved (or hated) them anyway. Because what I’m talking about is essentially a statistical statement, and idiosyncratic examples probably won’t change my mind.
In fact I’d argue that it’s very very difficult to prove or disprove my claim, at least with comments, because there’s a strong survivorship bias in place, namely that people who got scared away from math won’t be reading my blog at all. In order to give evidence to support or discredit my claim we would have to look at examples of populations which were or weren’t exposed to enrichment, versus contests, versus perhaps something else (like no math outside their classroom) and see who became mathematicians. Oh wait here’s something.
By the way, it’s important to make clear that I’m not suggesting stripping contest math out of the picture altogether. I think there’s a case to be made that they’re better than nothing. But we don’t need to settle for nothing! However, I think we should be creating alternatives that are not competitive or timed. I was very happy to hear about the month-long test and I also heard about a team 24-hour test (does anyone know the name of that and if it still exists?)
Two last tangentially related issues:
- I would argue that any time a bunch of nerd kids get together they have a blast. So we definitely should be getting math nerd kids together. We just shouldn’t be having them compete against each other. I claim they’d have an even better time that way.
- Also, has anyone else noticed the prevalence of girls who are good at competitions and very involved fathers? It’s really interesting. My dad is a mathematician too, and many (but not all) of the women mathematicians I know have heavily involved and/or mathematical dads.