When Dr. Jo Boaler started her teaching career in inner-city London—in a culturally diverse school population with roughly 250 different languages spoken—she was tasked with teaching math to students assigned to the bottom track. As far as the school system was concerned, this was the group destined for low-level achievement. She recalls one of her students asking, “Why should we bother?”
This experience inspired Dr. Boaler to work with her school to shift to a mixed achievement approach for students. It also sparked her passion for math education reform.
Now the author of numerous books on math education, Dr. Boaler serves as the Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University. She also co-founded www.youcubed.org, a site aimed at helping educators change their views on math education and increase student achievement. Recently, she partnered with curriculum publisher MidSchoolMath to promote their multidimensional math curriculum.
Dr. Boaler took the time to chat with EdSurge about growth mindset, the achievement gap and why she agreed to endorse one particular math curriculum provider over the many who have asked.
EdSurge: What makes for a strong math curriculum?
Boaler: We want a curriculum to be multidimensional—to have kids experience maths in lots of different ways. We want them to receive growth mindset messages and have that embedded in teaching materials. We want the assessment that goes with that teaching approach to be formative, where teachers are able to assess kids as they do this important work, not only in a short test at the end. All of those are important in a curriculum package.
I’m also very worried about how antiquated the maths is in school. I got involved in co-leading a data science initiative because we’re seeing a huge need for kids to be using data, becoming more data literate, being able to separate right from wrong and filter out misleading information that is given to them.
How can a curriculum promote that growth mindset you mentioned?
People understand the idea behind growth mindset: We have to encourage kids and tell them, “You can learn anything. There are no limits.” But in a lot of classrooms, it ends at those words. The teachers are sharing that message, but the teaching is the same. The approach in most maths classrooms is, “You watch me go through these methods, and then you do the same.” To kids, it appears very fixed.
The growth mindset messages are incompatible with this fixed content. Because if you’re giving me questions that have one method and one answer, then, as a learner, I can’t really see a way to grow and learn. We want kids to have that growth mindset perspective. So, we need to open up maths as a growth subject.
That means we give kids tasks to do where there are lots of different ways of solving them and lots of different ways of seeing them. And it’s inside those tasks that the growth mindset message can take root. I do think that requires changing what we’re doing in teaching because most curriculum doesn’t do this. It doesn’t give kids enough open-ended tasks.
Also, we know from neuroscience that when you work on a maths question, there are five different areas of the brain involved. We want to support connections between those brain areas. That’s what strengthens learning the most. Two of those brain areas are visual. So, thinking visually is important. But what we really want is to connect numbers with visuals or numbers with movement.
Having that multidimensional approach to maths is essential. It’s not just answering number questions. It’s engaging with maths in these different ways—visually, physically, with words and with drawing. That’s the experience we need to create, and it’s not what we see in books.
MidSchoolMath offers a 30-day trial to all districts and schools seeking new curriculum.
How can we address the achievement gap through math education?
Education is a complicated system, and there are many things that contribute to the achievement gap. There is also a very strong belief in our society that you can do maths or you can’t—that you’re kind of hardwired to be good at maths or not. When you combine those beliefs with stereotypes about who can be successful within a system that is all about right and wrong answers, then it’s disastrous. That’s what causes so many kids to underachieve.
Another really harmful myth that holds up so many learners is the idea that speed is what’s important in maths. If you’re a slow, deep thinker, which is actually what most mathematicians are, you start to think you can’t be successful.
We have to get rid of those blocks and to have teachers understand it’s just a myth that some kids can’t do well at maths, or that speed equates to skill. We’ve got to take away those limits inside schools that stop kids being able to move forward. And then, in the classroom, we need to give kids a multidimensional experience. So, we’re telling them they can learn, they see how they can learn, and they aren’t getting those mixed messages.
I mentioned it being complicated because you can do all of those things, but if kids are constantly being tested and graded in narrow ways, that undermines all the work teachers are doing. We have to also get this different approach out to assessment and to testing agencies. It’s a lot.
What is MidSchoolMath really getting right?
The thing that’s really different about MidSchoolMath is, these are educators writing the materials. They are former teachers; they get it. I see them offering kids this really authentic experience. Most kids sit in maths classrooms and think, “Why am I doing this?” They are given questions only for the sake of doing questions. Many of the units in MidSchoolMath start with an engaging, authentic experience where kids can become immersed.
At a public school in California, we engaged kids in a MidSchoolMath lesson where they were shown a simulation of people living in London when cholera was spreading. The students watched a video of people saying, “We don’t know how it’s spreading. How is this getting around? We really need to figure that out.”
You could see the kids were really interested. Then, they were given data from different wells in London and asked, “How is it spreading?” So, they were trying to figure it out, and they were really excited about it. They knew they could find a pattern that unlocks it.
There were a couple of kids who had different ideas about how it was spreading through London, and they were arguing with each other—which I love—and going back and forth. I could just see deep engagement. The kids cared about what they were doing. They wanted to know the answers.
It’s much more multidimensional. They’re looking at data. They are seeing visuals. They are engaged in conversation. I have been asked by a lot of publishers to endorse their curriculum. This is the one we need for our middle grades.