Friday, November 22, 2013

Jo Boaler Almost Has it Right

I really like what Jo Boaler has to say about maths education. I was one of the 40,000 who followed her Stanford course this summer on teaching maths. Her research over the years has shed much light on many different aspects of mathematics from the best way to teach to how to get people to open their minds about what maths and maths education are all about.

Sometimes, however, I fear she is guilty of making  over-generalizations in a way similar to those who believe that math should be memorized and learned the way it was 50 years ago.

In a recent article in The Atlantic she  avers that  "Speed doesn't matter, and there's no such thing as a "math person."". While I would agree that the two ideas of a) the need for speed, and b)  only people good at maths can do it, are two misconceptions that plague the real and joyful  study of maths there is difficulty in stating the situation categorically as Boaler does.

Clearly, the argument she gives against the need for speed in problem solving and so on is exactly right but I believe there are times when speed is a good thing such as in recalling facts. Having quick access to certain pieces of information is empowering and makes life in general easier and better. Generally, waiting for your mom to cut your food or for your dad to tie you shoe laces is OK when you are 3 or 4  but not when you are 9 or 10.

Again, to say there is no such thing as a "math person" seems to overstate what we really believe. There are clearly some people who will always be better at maths than others in just the same way some people will excel in sports or art or as musicians. I guess I still have to  agree with Howard Gardner that some people have a propensity for being able to think in certain ways while others may not. What I think is the heart of Boaler's assertion is Carol Dweck's idea of fixed versus growth mindset. In other words, so many, many people end up believing they are not good at math because they couldn't solve problems quickly, couldn't remember facts and were made to feel foolish by uncaring teachers resulting in a lifelong belief  that they were not good at math.  No-one should ever say again "I'm no good at math".

When we teach young children maths we should be sensitive to the way we respond to their efforts and accomplishments in maths class. We should encourage them to take time to think through what they are doing and to use what they know and understand.  We should encourage them to do the best they can but recognize a situation where, for one reason or another, a student might need extra help in the form of a different example, method or strategy to understand a particular idea or develop a particular skill, Everyone should have the opportunity to become the best "maths person" they can be. 


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