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Math in action: New online courses offer fresh approach to subject

Jo Boaler (second from right) offers an alternative to the traditional drill and memorization emphasis in U.S. math classes. (Courtesy of Reel Link Films)
Jo Boaler (second from right) offers an alternative to the traditional drill and memorization emphasis in U.S. math classes. (Courtesy of Reel Link Films)

Math in action: New online courses offer fresh approach to subject

Jo Boaler's online lessons show how to engage students by discussing underlying concepts, not just by focusing on getting the right answer.

Jo Boaler has a message for every student who’s ever wrestled with a difficult math problem — and deduced that mathematics is not their thing. “There is no such thing as a ‘math person’ or a ‘math gene,’” the Stanford professor of mathematics education says. “Scientists now know that experiences grow your brain, and your brain is so plastic, it can rewire itself.” With the right mindset plus good teaching, she insists, “everybody can do well.”

Boaler’s approach to math education has been gaining a lot of new followers recently. When Boaler offered a massive open online course last summer, called How to Learn Math, 40,000 parents and teachers signed up. In April, she spoke at the White House on barriers that may be holding girls back from careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM. And that same month she was honored by a national math teachers association.

Now Boaler, the author of What’s Math Got to Do With It?: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love their Least Favorite Subject, is taking her message directly to students, with a free new Stanford summer online course called How to Learn Math: For Students. Beginning June 17, the self-paced course will consist of six video lessons, approximately 15 minutes each, designed for students of any age. The first half of the course will focus on the latest in brain research — including the importance of a “growth mindset” and the power of mistakes — while the second half will offer vivid examples of mathematics in dance, juggling, soccer and nature, and teach powerful strategies for approaching and learning math effectively.

 “Many young learners and adults, particularly women, have had terrible experiences with math and developed a negative relationship with it, which affects them on a daily basis,” says Boaler, who leads courses for future teachers, as well as professional development programs, at Stanford Graduate School of Education. “The course was designed, using different engaging media, to help anyone who wants to improve their relationship with the subject.”

Boaler’s course pays special attention to the messages that students receive about math, and the importance of learners’ beliefs in their own abilities. As she explains, “Student mindsets have an enormous impact on their learning behaviors and future success.” She is now collaborating with Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck to study the best ways best ways to improve teachers and students’ mindsets in this area. [Boaler, the author of  discussed this subject in a recent essay on the Atlantic’s website.]

Boaler’s own interest in mathematics education dates back to her days as a youngster at an urban comprehensive school in England. “I always did well in math, but my friends struggled with it,” she recalls during an interview at her office at Stanford. “I was really aware, even as a kid, of how bad the teaching was.” As a young math instructor herself, in a gritty part of London, she looked for ways to make the subject more engaging and accessible.  

Her conclusion, backed by research in her studies, was that students do better when their teachers spend less time lecturing at the board, and more time engaging students as they work through complex math questions. Findings by Boaler and colleagues show that such methods not only improve students’ achievement and performance but also make them happier. As Boaler explains, “We need students actively thinking about mathematics, working on interesting and complex problems that involve using and applying mathematics, not just repeating methods.”

Changing math classes can be controversial — many schools have erupted over proposals to replace lectures and drills with the enquiry-based approach that Boaler and others recommend. The Common Core state standards are the latest example of how math instruction can be a lightning rod for public passions. Boaler works with teachers, in school districts across the country and online, to help prepare them for the changes required by the Common Core.

Boaler cites the United States’ dismal track record in the subject as evidence that people are in need of a different direction. She laid out the sobering statistics in a recent talk at Menlo-Atherton High School near the Stanford campus. “Seventy percent of students who enter two-year colleges in the United States are being placed into remedial math classes,” she told the attending parents. “And of those, 90 percent are failing or leaving college altogether . . . Over half of middle school students say they would rather eat broccoli than do math.”

As part of her efforts, Boaler has created a new website, www.youcubed.org, to help teachers and parents make the necessary changes. Aimed at providing free and affordable K-12 mathematics resources and professional development for educators and parents, the site includes videos about how to build self-confident, math loving children; lessons, aligned with Common Core standards, intended to engage K-12 students; math games and activities for parents to do with their children; and math problems from STEM-savvy companies, such as Google.

On a day-to-day level, Boaler recommends that parents and teachers praise children for persistence and effort in math, rather than for any perceived innate ability. Wrong answers should be viewed as opportunities for brain growth, rather than evidence of incompetence.  Instead of flash cards, which focus on speed and memorization, Boaler recommends engaging, math-oriented computer games that focus on building understanding of mathematical concepts (Whuzzit Trouble is a favorite). Instead of taking timed tests, which so often induce math anxiety and encourage a narrow focus on getting the right answer, students should be encouraged to think more deeply about underlying questions and concepts. And instead of toiling alone in silence, they should be working in pairs or small groups, communicating their mathematical reasoning to each other aloud and in writing.  

Second-grade teacher Liza Needham, who took Boaler’s massive open online course last summer, tried out the new methods this past year with her young students in Norfolk, Va., and says that she was impressed with the results. She recalls one group word problem that had the children’s rapt attention right up until the bell for lunch. “We were headed out the door, and I must have had five kids running up to me, saying, ‘Wait, Miss Needham! I have to tell you my strategy for solving it!’ I thought, ‘This is what math is supposed to be.’”

Boaler reports that 93 percent of the people who took her online course for parents and teachers last summer rated it as very or extremely satisfying, and 95 percent said they would change their teaching or ways of helping their own children as a result. She says that she also received more than 1,000 emails, from teachers across the grade span detailing changes in their teaching and the impact it was having on student engagement and achievement. In April she was honored for her contributions to math instruction by a national association of math teachers.

For her new online student course, Boaler recruited the help of two of her graduate students, Jen Munson and Dan Meyer, plus a lively troupe of 20 Stanford undergraduates. Among them were student gymnasts and a tennis player, who recorded video segments relating their sports to mathematics; and freshman Montserrat Cordero, who went through a variety of costume changes, including a lab coat and safari hat, to make points about brain science and creativity. For another segment, freshman Michaela Marie Hinks and friends donned fake mustaches. “There are some really interesting things in this course about the brain and learning,” Hinks said, “and I hope students can take that moving forward, and apply it to their own lives.”

Interested students (or their parents, if they’re under 13) can enroll at no cost in the course, How to Learn Math: For Students, which will run to the end of December. Stanford is also offering Boaler’s teacher/parent course again this year, starting June 17, for $125. How to Learn Math: For Teachers and Parents will consist of eight sessions of 10-20 minutes each, plus time to engage in tasks and questions.

In addition, Boaler’s work will be featured in a film about mathematics education, which is being produced by the makers of the 2010 documentary, Race to Nowhere. In her visit to the White House last month she showed a trailer for the  forthcoming film to policy makers. The excerpt highlights the impact of important mathematics change on teachers and students and how such changes can help to bridge the gender gap that exists in STEM-related fields.

“When kids get the idea that they’re not a ‘math person,’ they start a downward trajectory,” Boaler says in the clip. “Many careers are cut off from them.”

Theresa Johnston is a Palo Alto freelance writer and frequent contributor to Stanford print and online publications.

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