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The stereotypes about math that hold Americans back (commentary by Jo Boaler)

November 12, 2013
The Atlantic
Prof. Boaler argues that students learn best when they can explain their methods and make connections to real-world applications.
Jo Boaler

Speed doesn't matter, and there's no such thing as a "math person." How the Common Core's approach to the discipline could correct these misperceptions.

Mathematics education in the United States is broken. Open any newspaper and stories of math failure shout from the pages: low international rankings, widespread innumeracy in the general population, declines in math majors. Here’s the most shocking statistic I have read in recent years: 60 percent of the 13 million two-year college students in the U.S. are currently placed into remedial math courses; 75 percent of them fail or drop the courses and leave college with no degree.

We need to change the way we teach math in the U.S., and it is for this reason that I support the move to Common Core mathematics. The new curriculum standards that are currently being rolled out in 45 states do not incorporate all the changes that this country needs, by any means, but they are a necessary step in the right direction.

I have spent years conducting research on students who study mathematics through different teaching approaches—in England and in the U.S.  All of my research studies have shown that when mathematics is opened up and broader math is taught—math that includes problem solving, reasoning, representing ideas in multiple forms, and question asking—students perform at higher levels, more students take advanced mathematics, and achievement is more equitable.

One of the reasons for these results is that mathematical problems that need thought, connection making, and even creativity are more engaging for students of all levels and for students of different genders, races, and socio-economic groups. This is not only shown by my research but by decades of research in our field. When all aspects of mathematics are encouraged, rather than procedure execution alone, many more students contribute and feel valued. For example, some students are good at procedure execution, but may be less good at connecting methods, explaining their thinking, or representing ideas visually. All of these ways of working are critical in mathematical work and when they are taught and valued, many more students contribute, leading to higher achievement. I refer to this broadening and opening of the mathematics taught in classrooms as mathematical democratization. When we open mathematics we also open the doors of math achievement and many more students succeed.

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Jo Boaler's faculty profile can be found here.

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