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Gender, mathematics and digital talent

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Two girls at the Els Til·lers school in May of last year.
Two girls at the Els Til·lers school in May of last year.Albert Garcia / THE COUNTRY

Education is the place where the life in society of tomorrow is disputed, although it is often designed today with inheritances from yesterday. Updating the educational system is critical and hence the uproar generated by some aspects of the Lomloe (the educational law approved in 2020), such as the adoption of the gender perspective in a transversal way, or the socio-emotional conditioning factors of learning. Some political formations have instrumentalized these changes, as if we could separate content from values. Relegating schools to mere spaces for the transmission of knowledge in the digital age is to condemn them to irrelevance. And what a paradox that this gaze remains in force, when we have learned —especially in confinements— that school is, above all else, where we learn to be and live together.

Relegating schools to content transmission spaces is condemning them to irrelevance

Reality is complex and insisting on fragmenting substance and form is closer to the 19th century than the 21st. In fact, in 1899 they commissioned the artist Jean Marc Coté a series of illustrations about life in the year 2000. In this retrofuturist exercise, Coté drew a classroom of his time: fixed desks, facing the blackboard, students in gowns and hanging maps in the walls. The innovative touch is the mechanics to inoculate knowledge: to the right of the illustration a teacher appears feeding a skylight machine. A student activates the crank to process and transmit the wisdom of the texts to the brains of his classmates, through a kind of headphones connected to the circuit that starts in the contraption.

What is surprising about Coté’s image is the individualization of learning, the static passivity of the recipient, and the absence of human interaction between the teacher and the students. They share physical space without dialogue, there is no listening, there is no reflection. The context and what involves learning is key, and to be meaningful it has to connect with our sensitivity. Neuroscientific studies confirm that we learn faster and more durably what excites us. Joy stimulates memory, that’s why we learned the multiplication tables by singing.

Precisely because gender and mathematics have lived in parallel conversations, today we have one woman for every four men working in the technology sector. And judging by the ethical debates that haunt technology corporations, it is urgent to defragment the gaze if we want diversity in the STEAM professions and generate valuable talent for the digital sector. Perhaps because mathematics has been installed in the rational, we have believed that data has no ideology, that science is neutral or that algorithms are equanimous. Breaking those created borders is a great opportunity. And if not tell it to Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Automatic Destruction, who started in the world of algorithms so as not to get entangled with subjective issues. And there it is now, claiming the importance of mathematical ethics.

Saving distances, there are parallels between educating creatures and designing algorithms: both spaces are places where the foundations are laid that will influence future decision-making. And it cannot be done in a vacuum. O’Neil and other authors insist that the sooner we understand that algorithms contain biases and therefore automate certain values, the sooner we can socially agree on what these principles should be. The same is true at school: debating values ​​is not indoctrination. To remove them from the debate is to guarantee the heterogeneity of agendas and inequalities. Nor would the content have to be displaced to teach values ​​in a decontextualized way. Rather, it is about school being an introduction to explicit and socially shared consensus, such as the legal framework or human rights.

Perhaps because mathematics has been installed in the rational, we believe that data has no ideology

We need schools where the teaching-learning experience is understood from interdependence and in all directions. Authority roles are transformed, vertical hierarchies are broken and educating a critical spirit has to do with teamwork. We need a citizenry that knows how to navigate uncertainty and make decisions in complex scenarios. And we need these opportunities to reach all the people who will start a course in the compulsory stages in September.

It is also the time to listen to the many movements for pedagogical renewal that have been identifying what works and what innovations are needed for years. Education must be connected to its context, just as there is no longer an excuse for companies that only pursue economic benefits while worsening gaps and inequalities. That is why mathematics needs a gender perspective.

Liliana Arroyo placeholder image She is a Doctor in Sociology and researcher at the ESADE Institute for Social Innovation

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