Keisha Thompson: The Binary Brainwash

Binary. It basically means one thing or the other, right? But if you trace the word back it actually stems from the Latin word bini meaning ‘two together’. So when first appropriated into the English language its meaning was closer to that of ‘duality’ as opposed to the idea of mutual exclusivity we’ve become familiar with. For us, binary is now also linked to mathematics. It is zeroes and ones. Numbers.

Young people are so often taught to think in binary terms: you’re either one thing or the other

I started that paragraph talking about language. A great love of mine. But I ended up talking about numbers. Another great love of mine. For some, this would be a contradiction. How can you love language and numbers? How can you be a poet and a mathematician? Young people are so often taught to think in binary terms: you’re either one thing or the other. You’re good at Mathematics or you’re good at English. Girls are better at this. Boys are better at that.

I’m grateful to say that I managed to swerve the binary brainwash. I was introduced to a range of subjects and activities before I even got to school. I loved writing poetry. I loved Maths. I loved football. I loved ballet. I loved baking. I loved kick-boxing. I loved trying everything. And there were no binaries to be seen. Furthermore, when I got to high school age I chose to go to a girls’ school so once again the idea of binaries went out the window. I was exposed to all types of people in that environment. It just so happened that we all identified as female.

MissEducation (Lunar) – Keisha Thompson

The binaries we often experience when it comes to subjects such as Maths and English are so often associated with another one – the gender binary. Copious studies have told us that girls are not pursuing careers in the fields of science and mathematics. Schemes like STEM have been set up to tackle this problem. In principle I am happy that STEM exists. However, in both intention and application it adheres to the same binary that it attempts to solve.

  1. Girls are bad at mathematics
  2. Boys are good at mathematics
  3. Girls needs schemes to help them get better careers
  4. Boys do not need schemes to help them get better careers
  5. STEM subjects are more important than other subjects
  6. We need more girls in those topics to boost the economy (as opposed to considering how those fields will actually benefit from having more diverse contributions)

In my view, we need to change the approach if we want to see real change.

the gender gap for attainment is non-existent in terms of actual abilities being gendered

A recent article by Katherine Wu at NOVA¹ stated that results of research into subject attainment and the gender gap are reported in a way that’s misleading. In actual fact, the results from over 60 countries around the world show that the difference between male and female mathematics attainment is pretty insignificant. Furthermore, since girls are ‘seen’ to excel in more verbal and language-based subjects at an earlier age, they are led to believe that, in comparison or simply by assumption, they are bad at mathematics. The binary brainwash.

Wu’s article was a pleasure to read because it said all the stuff that I have found to be true from my experience of training as a mathematics teacher (shout out to my boss, Suzie, for sending it to me). It essentially concludes that the gender gap for attainment is non-existent in terms of actual abilities being gendered. Instead, the gap we see is a product of poor socialization, poor confidence and misinterpreted statistics!

I want to deliver fun creative maths lessons that feel like poetry workshops

I’ll always remember when I was in a primary school in Levenshulme as part of my teacher training. During a lesson I was astounded by the way that socialization and gendered expectation had, at such a young age, already made a mark on the students’ learning. As girls we are taught to be vulnerable and express our feelings. Many boys are taught to be confident and not show signs of weakness. I went around the classroom helping the students with their fractions. All of the girls who were struggling were happy to say, “Miss I’m struggling.” “I don’t understand it.” “I’m not sure if I’ve got the right answer.” Immediately I was able to help. They got the answer and moved onto the next activity. All of the boys who were struggling didn’t tell me. I could see that they didn’t have a clue. However, when I asked them if they needed help the response was, “Nah Miss I’m good at this.” “I know what I’m doing.” “I’ve got the answer.” Even after I had explained that they hadn’t. It broke my heart that these 7-year-old boys already felt that they needed to perform this false sense of security, and that it was having a detrimental effect on their learning. They didn’t know the answer. They couldn’t move on.

as all boys did so I tried to do
Inspired by Roger Robinson’s As All Boys Did

grey Filas
on slugs
Ren and Stimpy
protests in McDonalds
when they gave me
instead of a car
scars upon scars
on corduroy knees
running face first to the wind
to win the playground race
Chinese burns and head locks

until I was asked to  – show ’em my privates
pretence deciphered
not one of them
don’t let them see my
church dresses
and butterfly wings

singing football chants
louder than the next lad
Tekken and Need for Speed
a fist to the screen then
a stern look from my mother

No more Playstation till you learn
to calm your temper

I was an open-mouthed breather

flipping collectable coins
playing to the binary of biology, this species
bird faeces on the shoulder is a good sign
I’ve been stabbing trees
cutting the doll’s hair off
kickboxing and blue socks
wrestling and mud and mud and throwing rocks
in the park instead of bread

straddling the shed
coming to the edge like Evel Knievel
ready to break bones
hoping I will crack myself open
show them the rotting spice
everything nice and pink
like blood curdled with piss
this is what I am made of

With all this in mind, for the past two years I have been developing an idea for a project called DeCipher, sharing how I merge mathematics with poetry. So far I’ve had the pleasure of working with school groups and young people with the help of Manchester Science Festival and Africa Writes. In the full version of the project I want to merge my artistic practices with Realistic Mathematics Education theory. Basically I want to deliver fun creative maths lessons that feel like poetry workshops or dance classes or baking parties. I want to teach people from a range of ages, backgrounds, genders. Hopefully I can do something to guide us back towards the original meaning of binary – ‘two together’. Things do not have to be one or the other, or should that be one or zero?


Keisha Thompson is a Manchester-based writer, performance artist and producer. Find out more about her work at keishathompson.com or follow her on Twitter.

1. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/gender-gap-math-comparative-advantage/

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