Working to change the mindset for math

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

What is it about math that strikes fear and trembling in students and adults alike? Perhaps the fault is not in the math, but in ourselves – in how we teach and learn it. Jo Boaler certainly thinks so. She calls mathematics literacy the issue of the 21st century. Even as more companies are looking for people who can use advanced reasoning skills to solve problems, students spend most of their time in math class learning how to compute, she says. Boaler, a British-born professor of mathematics education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and author of several books on teaching and learning mathematics, brings the latest thinking in psychology, particularly the work of Carol Dweck, and neuroscience to bear on her argument that students would be better served if teachers took a multi-dimensional approach to math (including problem solving, reasoning and communicating) rather than a one-dimensional approach (teaching how to perform various mathematical processes). Indeed, given the emerging evidence she cites of how the former type of teaching results in high student performance, “it’s a no-brainer”, she says.

But the brain, itself, provides some of the all-important evidence for advocating multi-dimensional learning of mathematics. “With recent findings about brain plasticity, we are learning that the brain is more flexible than once thought; and that brain structure changes after training,” Boaler said during a recent visit to OECD headquarters in Paris. “That means that all students can achieve.” Not only that, she says: brain activity increases when students make mistakes in the process of learning: “When you make a mistake, your synapses fire; this doesn’t happen when you get the answer right,” Boaler noted.  “Mistakes are the most useful thing a kid can make.”

So, if the evidence is so concrete and overwhelming, why aren’t we seeing wholesale changes in the way mathematics is taught and learned? “Kids who do well on procedural tests might not do as well on different kinds of problems,” Boaler said. “Teachers and parents don’t know the evidence; it’s a communication issue as well. And some of the problem is about ‘who should achieve’: some people don’t have equity in mind.”

It comes down to teachers’ attitudes, too. “Some teachers embrace change, some are much more conservative about change,” Boaler said. She finds a “huge willingness” among elementary and middle school teachers in the United States to alter the way they teach mathematics, and more resistance among high school teachers. “Good math teaching is good teaching,” she said. Right now, “math is taught as a ‘right or wrong’ subject, which conveys the message that either you can or you can’t do it. This is a stereotyped message about who can achieve; and it has all the ingredients for failure and inequity — which is what you see in mathematics performance. A lot has to do with beliefs among teachers. One belief that the best teachers have is that all of their students can achieve.”

Change is happening, albeit slowly. In the United States, for example, the new Common Core curriculum puts greater emphasis on problem solving. (Results from the PISA 2012 assessment of problem solving will be released on 1 April.) “People are seeing results of problem-solving tests and they are freaking out,” Boaler said. “Industry wants change. Mathematics performance has to do with confidence: if students feel they can’t do it, that’s a huge barrier; it’s a damaging mindset to have, for both high- and low-performing students. But when you promote learning as a process, great things happen. ”

Boaler has started a movement to change the way math is taught in schools, which can be seen at

Jo Boaler
Stanford Graduate School of Education
What’s Math Got to do With It? written by Jo Boaler
Carol Dweck
Common Core
Results from PISA 2012
Photo Credit: Concept illustration of a human brain made from crumpled paper with numbers and equations on it / @Shutterstock

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