Thursday, August 15, 2013

How To Learn Math

For the past week I've been auditing the on-line course by Jo Boaler of Stanford University. The course, How to Learn Math raises so many wonderful  issues about how we need to develop a more user friendly and conceptually-based  way of teaching math; how math needs to be seen as a creative activity and how we need to get away from the idea  that math is a closed set of procedures to be memorized. Now while these are things I have been advocating for for almost my entire professional life there is something in the course that is having a radical influence  on the way I see my role as a teacher of teachers of elementary school math.

This is the idea of fixed versus growth mindset. developed by Dr. Carol Dweck as described in her book Mindset.   This is clearly an  incredibly important issue for helping children become better at math especially those students who, because of our current system of  testing, have pretty much given up on ever achieving anything mathematically. To be told you are a mathematical failure at age 6 and have no hope of changing that is the world of the fixed mindset indeed.

But there's another application of this incredible idea which is to apply it to parents in terms of their attitudes toward math education. Over the years I have engaged in may discussions, arguments and  even confrontations, some even in public forums, with parents who truly believe that the math they learned by rote in school 30 years ago "was good enough for them so it should be good enough for their children". Sadly, the proponent of the fixed mindset are frequently successful businessmen who point to their success as the reason for maintaining the"no pain, no gain" approach to learning mathematics.

If we are to bring about the evolution of math education to a truly conceptual approach we have to do much to bring about a cultural shift in thinking about mathematics education, a task made more difficult by the disaster of the "new math' activities of the early 1970s in the last century. Perhaps the only way to succeed is to show that the methods advocated by Jo Boaler and the rest of us really do improve scores on tests.

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