Girls And Maths: 5 Ways To Boost Confidence In Primary School

Bringing girls and Maths together has proven to be difficult in the past, and our Maths consultant Jodie Lopez takes a look at how to tackle this particular problem. 

I have been reading quite a lot lately about the apparent differences between girls and boys when choosing GCSE and A level options at school. The statistics in pieces from thought leaders such as National Numeracy paint a worrying picture.

Historically, girls and Maths, alongside the other STEM subjects, have had a tempestuous relationship. These subjects have been seen as being “for boys” by many young pupils, and it appears that there is still an uphill battle to change this perception. For me though, this raised questions such as:

– Is it the case that girls simply have no interest in continuing into careers in Mathematics?

– Or do they feel they will not fit in if they do?

– If they feel it is not for them, how early in life does such a mindset settle in?

– And most importantly, can we reverse pupils current expectations around maths for girls?

Pupil confidence is often key in the classroom

This Guardian article struck a chord with me and with my experience of teaching Maths in primary school. This section in particular made me think of one class of Year 5 top set Maths I used to teach:

Girls and Maths - lacking confidence
Girls and Maths may struggle to get along if they can’t be heard.

My Year 5 Maths class could easily have been the ones being quoted here at the beginning of my year with them, so I am speaking solely on my own anecdotal evidence from that particular class. For me the quote rings true, so by explaining how I put changes in place which impacted on their results, you will be able to gain something from this article!

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Boys were more confident than the girls in Maths lessons

The girls in the class were the quietly confident types. They did know the Maths, they knew how to explain it, and they had a good grasp on mathematical concepts and number work. The boys had the same grasp of the concepts and number work, but also had a lot more up front confidence in themselves.

While there was nothing separating the boys from the girls’ Maths skills on paper – i.e. test results – there was a lot to separate them in class. The boys would often shout out the answers straight off the bat – even if they were wrong – such was their confidence in their Maths ability.

The girls would quietly put their hands up or not even attempt to answer – even when they 100% knew the answer (there were of course exceptions, but it was a very stark general rule).

If you are looking for tips about how to deal with a class which is at different levels, take a look at this blog on “What  Every Leader Should Know About Mixed Ability Teaching” to help close the gaps between boys and girls and Maths.

Answering questions was easy, explaining them proved more difficult

The boys would get frustrated if asked to show their working, as if my job was just to believe them and move on rather than get an in-depth understanding of their workings. They also lacked confidence if the answer was wrong, and refused to work with me to figure out the problem, making it hard to correct misconceptions.

The girls would happily show me how they worked it out – but did not wish to do so in front of the whole class. They generally seemed more open to learning to improve so long as it was not obvious to anyone else that they needed help. They liked to play the “keep the teacher happy” game more than the boys, who mostly were competitive among their own groups. It was evident that girls and Maths did go extremely well together, however there was an element of maths anxiety present in the classroom.

Again I know these sound like stereotypes but are reflective of that class even if of no other. I needed a way to close the confidence based gender gap in Maths. 

There was one common problem that needed a solution

What was common with the whole class was that they were much more confident in pure Maths than they were in its application to worded problems and problem solving. They had also developed (i.e. been taught) a number of common “tricks” which ‘worked’ fine at lower levels but would not help them at secondary school; such as “add a zero” when multiplying by 10. This meant they carried some confidences which fell apart when we worked further into decimals.

How I helped my class gain confidence in Maths

I had my work cut out for me and I spent some time pondering what to do next. I began by working with some of the girls in 1-to-1 sessions, and this helped them to gain the confidence they needed to participate more in lessons. Through this process, I also found that 1-to-1’s were a good way to help the boys in my class organise their thoughts.

However, we still needed something else in class too, a different approach to whole-class questioning which took us beyond the “put your hand up and shout out an answer proudly” approach…

The next step – It was time to “thunk” differently 

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by Ian Gilbert of Independent Thinking a few months prior to taking this class, and it was the memory of this that came flooding back to me one evening while I was stressing about classroom activities. Ian was talking about his “thunks” (you can buy the Little Book of Thunks here). “Thunks” are questions for which there is normally no actual answer, and if there is it is extremely open ended and can have multiple responses.

Girls and Maths - In depth thinking questions
Example “thunk” questions.

Although they are not really Maths related at all – although some are and can be – I decided to start introducing them at the start of every Maths lesson. So we started the next Monday morning with our first “thunk” of the day. And it threw my pupils completely.

Girls and Maths - question responses
A selection of answers from my class
Boys, girls and maths: The playing field was now even…

I knew at that point that I had their full attention – and crucially, that we finally had a level playing field. No-one knew what to do with it, so I talked to them about some questions having no obvious answer. About some having no answer at all and about how to use creative and informed thinking to solve problems.

We discussed the kinds of things in history that had required someone to find a new way of doing things that had never been done before.

Girls and Maths - Hidden Figures Movie
Girls and Maths proved to be a powerful due as Maths had to be created from scratch to send man to the moon!

We need to move past the idea that all Maths has been done already, and all that’s left for us to do is learn the answers from somebody else’s hard work. Maybe there is another way out there. One that no one has even thought of yet; a quicker, more in-depth and exciting way.

It can be difficult to find the resources to get pupils thinking in this manner, but there are some amazing resources out there to help including this ultimate guide to problem solving techniques.

Slowly, focus changed in the classroom to a more in depth approach

We started working on one “thunk” a day, and all I asked was that they discussed it with a partner as they came into the room and settled. It’s a great way to start a lesson, and the room was soon buzzing with thought.

Volunteers then explained their answer to the class, and this often opened up a debate among other members of the class, encouraging them to question further. This is a great way to bring the Maths mastery approach into the classroom to deepen pupils understanding.

Alongside the “thunks” I started to dedicate one Maths lesson a week to problem solving. Pupils number work was strong, but we needed a lot of work on more open problems and application of number so this tied in nicely.

I noticed a change week in and week out in their approaches to the problems. They were delving further and deeper. At times they were able to apply their new creative, problem solving minds to quick solutions. Other times it enabled them to go far and above what was even asked of them, and this was a great way to stretch the more able pupils in the class too.

Even Ofsted were impressed by this approach to bringing boys, girls and maths closer together!

When we had an Ofsted inspection (I know, I know… we don’t do it for them, but it helps when they like it too!) the inspector said she had never heard children questioning Maths as deeply as my class other than in secondary school visits of Year 9 and above.

Maths had come alive and was no longer just about learning and regurgitating facts and figures. Maths was evolving. The progress of the class became more rapid and the early differences I have described fell away.

Pupils were equally as likely to put their hand up, equally confident to explain their workings, and equally open to further investigation into any errors.

This subject was loved by the boys and girls, and Maths had become a lesson that increased engagement across the board.

One day a pupil called out “Miss, my pen’s run out of ink!” and from across the room, without skipping a beat, came a call of “So is it even a pen?”

That’s the day I knew that the “thunks” had taken us way past where even I ever dreamed they would! Suddenly my class of 9 and 10 year olds were following in the footsteps of the mathematician philosophers of ancient times!

Having a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial to pupils’ success in overcoming obstacles such as the one above. Here are 9 ways you can develop a growth mindset culture in your classroom.

If you’ve identified a girls and maths confidence issue in your classroom, here are 5 things you can do to fix it

If the challenges I found with over/under confidence in my class resonates with you, try any or all of the following:

1. Challenge all pupils to think and avoid questions with simple answers

Try introducing more open-ended tasks to really challenge all learners. Whether you decide to use the “thunks” discussed above or other problem solving challenges such as Einstein’s Puzzle, you should aim to level the playing field.

You should be presenting tasks which have no simple answer and make all pupils stop to think, and ideally, fail. With failure comes the chance for the pupils to try again to find the most effective and efficient method of answering the question. These tasks should be built on solid number or concept skills, but there are a variety of tasks out there that you can use to appeal to every learner in any year group.

2. Get creative when getting answers from your pupils

For pupils who are overconfident and prone to shouting out answers without due consideration of their workings, get them to record their workings out in the form of a podcast or sound file. This will be seen as an exciting new way for them to get share their knowledge, and they will often stop to explain their thinking in much greater detail than they would otherwise have done.

I tell my pupils to explain their working to somebody who is blind, and this stops explanations such as “yeah, just move that 1 down here” and replaces them with “move one ten to the hundreds column”. This helps them to focus on the mathematical process of what they are doing, rather than relying on simple visual memory of completing similar problems.

3. Work 1-to-1 with pupils that are lacking in confidence

For pupils lacking confidence, teachers should try to firstly build their confidence in maths with some 1-to-1 work where possible – even if only for one lesson – to help them to really get a handle on where their strengths and weaknesses are. If you feel it is comfortable to do so, depending on the full makeup of your class, you may wish to share strengths and weaknesses across the class with everyone once you have built individual confidence. This could then get away from the idea of those “best” and “worst” in the class overall.


“We focused on using Third Space to boost girls’ confidence in Maths. We achieved 80% in our Maths SATs and all of our Third Space pupils exceeded expectations.”
Headteacher, Dove Bank Primary School, Stoke

The Third Space Learning model of intervention is highly personalised for this very scenario. Specialist Maths tutors provide affordable 1-to-1 tuition to the pupils who most need individualised support whether to support them to working at ARE, or to stretch and challenge. The Maths Hub of fluency, reasoning and problem-solving resources, CPD and assessment is then available to the class teacher to plan and deliver mastery led Maths lessons to the rest of the class.


4. Tailor assessments to each pupil to help them achieve the most that they can

Use clear assessments and then share them with the pupils so that they always know what their next steps will be. For pupils that are struggling, they will find it easier to focus on mini progression steps and as each step is completed they will gain confidence in their abilities!

Once you reveal that they have ticked off almost everything on their list, their confidence will soar even higher as they clear what seemed an insurmountable leap. This is a fantastic way to cater for each pupil in your class, and it will really help to improve the relationship between girls and Maths in your classroom.

5. Maths lessons are for everyone, so keep enthusiasm levels high

Don’t allow anyone to use statements at either end of the confidence scale, e.g. “I cannot do Maths” or “I am awesome at Maths”. Instead, encourage them to delve deeper and figure out what they can do at present and what they have not done yet. This is one of the ways we can ensure that our female pupils will head off to secondary school and become teenage girls who are as confident in their maths abilities as their male counterparts. 

There is a lot of great reading around how to get Growth Mindset right which comes in useful here.

Be sure not to make it about platitudes, however, and really build a culture of “I cannot do X yet…what do I need to do to get there?” Make sure you also team this with access to a wide range of tasks which build on skills, while consolidating their core knowledge even more.

These ideas should help you to ensure that you have a more even playing field in your classroom. I know how difficult it can be to bring girls and Maths together, encouraging the often shyest member of the class to speak up, but using these methods I hope you see a positive return from teaching Maths to girls and boys just like I did.

Universities and employers are keen to recruit more women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, so it is important that we tackle this issue as early as we can to give all of our pupils the best possible chance later in life. 

Additional reading – If you would like to discover more about the reasons why both primary and teenage girls lack confidence in maths and how this has resulted in a gender gap in the maths classroom, this study looks at the topic in more detail.

If you are looking for more ways to increase confidence and engagement among your pupils, then take a look at the 20 KS2 strategies we use in our teaching to guarantee progress for any pupils.

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Learn how the programmes are aligned to maths mastery teaching or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.


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