The line curves and bends around the noisy Boston Convention Center. Fans stand in line – some for over an hour – patiently waiting to get an autograph from the superstar in their midst. Many held books to be signed, a few clenched $5 bills which they eagerly photo and tweeted, some just want a chance to talk with her. And, although this might seem typical for a famous actress, model, or author, it’s not every day that this kind of attention is placed on a math teacher.
This rockstar-style meet-and-greet book-signing was the aftermath of Boaler’s keynote speech at the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics 2015 conference (#NCSM15) in Boston this week. As a math education reformer and Stanford Graduate School of Education professor, the sheer number of Boaler’s supporters and fans proved that, far from ordinary, she is as extraordinary as a mathematical four-leaf clover.
What has propelled Boaler above the pack is not her fantastic writing, although her new book, “What’s Math Got to Do With It?” is already an Amazon Bestseller after being released only two weeks ago (“Amazon Bestsellers in Mathematics,” Amazon). It’s not even the no-nonsense speaking style that has inspired thousands of college graduates, high school students, and math teachers. What sets Boaler apart is her habit of calling out long-standing problems with poor mathematics instruction and giving real-world solutions for a better way of teaching to empower teachers and students alike.
In a recent video lecture Boaler gave for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), she explained her philosophy:
“Many kids go down a faulty pathway, a pathway that is very damaging to them early in their career. That pathway is one where they think math is a subject where you have lots of rules to remember. They don’t see a role for thinking because they’ve been taught very procedurally. They see math as a long ladder, if you will, of rules upon rules upon rules – They’re not connected, they don’t mean anything. You just have to remember them.” (Jo Boaler, “The Good and Bad of Mathematics Education,” StanfordSCOPE)
It’s this sense of disconnectedness and rote learning that Boaler is trying to combat with her innovative teaching reform. In the course of her studying and research, she realized that mathematical speed was not equivalent to understanding, and that rote memorization left huge portions of learners uninspired – often demographics who were underrepresented and might otherwise excel at math.
Making waves across the Atlantic, Boaler recently published an article on her home soil of Britain, demanding for a change in the way that teachers approach math, especially as it relates to these underrepresented populations. The article, shared almost 1000 times on social media channels, did not hesitate to state that the British educational system was shutting out potential female mathematicians by teaching purely procedural math and supporting a climate of sexual discrimination.
“We need a maths revolution in schools. We need to stop implying that female students are incapable; we need to stop offering a mathematics that is procedural; and we need to start teaching problem-solving mathematics better for students in general and for girls in particular. For this reason I am developing a new centre at Stanford that provides teachers, parents and students with the information and resources they need to do this ().” (Jo Boaler, “Britain’s Maths Policy Simply Doesn’t Add Up,” The Telegraph)
Youcubed.org has brought additional awareness to many of the problems in the current math education world. Here, teachers, students, and administrators can see some of the revolutionary ideas that Boaler has discovered through her years of research and teaching: depth, not speed; having a growth mindset; and cultivating number sense instead of memorization.
Here at EDUCATION INSIDER, we’ve been highlighting former math students who are the embodiment and perfect example of how Boaler’s ideas, when incorporated into curriculum, can yield outstanding results and students who not only embrace math throughout their school years, but throughout life! Meet former math students (current young adults with thriving careers): Rex Moribe, Jillian Green, and Jake Lyman.
It’s these concepts that Boaler evangelizes when she is called to be the keynote speaker at conventions like Texas Instruments’ Teachers Teaching with Technology™ Conference and #NCSM15. During her #NCSM15 keynote this week, she focused specifically on these core ideas:
Common Core is Right On Time
Forget what you’ve heard, and the fiery political debates and backlash, according to Boaler, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for math are about moving away from rote memorization – and it’s right on time. Not only does rote memorization of traditional learning give students no concept of number relationships, but it may support the use of timed testing and drill exercises that can cause long-term damage to a student’s desire to learn math. In addition, as some math teachers in the audience during Boaler’s #NCSM15 keynote tweeted, this concept of “number crunching with no reasoning,” is the last thing that teachers and parents want.
The Demise of Speed and the Rise of Slow Math
One of the areas Boaler emphasized in her keynote (and has emphasized in her work) was that memorization and timed tests often do more damage than good. Instead of focusing on how fast students can regurgitate math facts (or how fast they can learn them), teachers should be allowing students time to really understand how math works. This alleviates the “extreme stress” that more than a third of students feel when they are required to participate in timed tests. In fact, Boaler insists that some students will be slower when memorizing, but still possess exceptional mathematics potential. This, asserts Boaler, is where misconceptions and phobias about ones math abilities arise.
In a recent Stamford News interview with writer Clifton B. Parker (who also writes for Futurity). Bowler explains the reality and importance of slow math: “I work with a lot of mathematicians, and one thing I notice about them is that they are not particularly fast with numbers; in fact some of them are rather slow. This is not a bad thing; they are slow because they think deeply and carefully about mathematics.”
Among math teachers in the audience at Jo Boaler’s #NCSM15 keynote, her sentiments on kicking speed-tests to the curb and embracing slow math, resonated strongly and was echoed in a slew of tweets and retweets. Many math teachers already participate in the growing Slow Math movement in social media. The #SlowMath hashtag and daily tweetchat #SlowMathChat (hosted by math teacher Michael Fenton, @mjfenton ) is a valuable resource for math teachers looking to make substantive changes in their math instruction by embracing slow math. Educators are even documenting their transition to slow math in personal blogs (like math teacher Jennifer Wilson whose blog, The Slow Math Movement, is meant “to share evidence of giving students time to experience mathematics instead of just telling students mathematics”). The message from Boaler and math teachers is clear: when it comes to math learning, there’s no need for speed!
One of the most talked about comments Boaler made during the keynote address was the need for teachers to “celebrate mistakes.” This led to a thoughtful discussion, that played out via Twitter, about whether mistakes should be rewarded or merely the thought processes behind making those mistakes.
In response to Boaler’s call to embrace failure, educator Jennifer Wilson (@jwilson828) tweeted a question that offered food for thought, “How do you create a culture where mistakes are welcome? How do you celebrate your students’ mistakes?” Justin Lanier (@j_lanier) offered one response: “I feel like this should be more, ‘celebrate the good thinking that’s within, even the incorrect answers.’ I mean, I can get behind, ‘Yay, you tried something!’ But I don’t know if I can get behind, “Yay, you made a mistake!'”
Other teachers like Debbie Thompson (@DThompsonMath) had a different interpretation of Boaler’s comment: “It is about learning from your mistakes, not making mistakes. We just want to be intentional with the “mistakes.”” Undoubtedly, the idea of embracing mistakes (or, perhaps, being “intentional with mistakes”) will remain a much-debated topic in education and Jo Boaler will be at the forefront of this discussion.
Mothers and Daughters, Engaging Students Through Dialogue
Another key idea that Boaler emphasized was that focusing on teaching in-depth number sense and math concepts will naturally include underrepresented demographics, like minority and female learners. She also suggested that the way parents, teachers, and students talk about math in relation to gender can have lasting and damaging effects.
The following quote by Jo Boaler during her keynote (captured by New York math teacher, David Wees, @davidwees) was retweeted over 200 times since then and sparked debates (see below):
Unfortunately, many teachers in the audience tweeted that this was not an abnormal occurrence. Some explained that math was still seen as not socially compatible with popularity or having friends. Manan Shah (consulting mathematician and software developer) responded, “I have parents (i teach 18-55 year olds) who say ‘my daughter is a social butterfly, math isn’t for her…’ I have plenty of responses [to this], starting with “What’s not social about math?'”
The discussion that took place on the hashtag backchannel, while Boaler continued her keynote, was almost as long and as in depth as a tweetchat (such is the power of Jo Boaler to challenge ideas and incite much-needed debate).
For math teachers around the world, Jo Boaler is the kind of hero that could not only change the whole face of education, but who could help to empower math teachers and parents to change the face of education (something that separates her from the pack and catapults her to “rockstar” status). Her longstanding research, passion, and advocacy for a new way of teaching is just the thing many students need to be successful. To be sure, she has critics — but one can’t help but to think that she might welcome constructive debate and view it as a healthy sign of change to come.
As more math educators become vocal about their classroom experiences, and share those experiences through PLNs, social media, and at national conferences like #NCSM15 and NCTM 2015 (we’ll be there this week, Booth #1041!), the entire education community can come together around innovative ideas like those of Boaler and, with much determination and a little luck, can start a math revolution! Were you at the keynote? Are you familiar with Boaler’s work? We’d love to know what you think (leave comments below).
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