Setting Up For Math Success

Visiting Innovator Jo Boaler shares math education research, techniques with Richmond community.

Improvements to mathematics education are greatly needed in the United States. According to research posted by youcubed, a Stanford University center that provides free math education resources, a high percentage of students in grades K-12 and college are struggling in math classes. In addition, less than two percent of college graduates are earning math degrees. These statistics seem overwhelming, but for Stanford Professor of Mathematics Education Jo Boaler, these numbers serve as inspiration for change.

Dr. Boaler, who is co-founder of youcubed as well as an author and noted TED speaker, spoke to a gathering of parents, faculty, staff, and community members at The Steward School on Monday, November 7 as part of the first 2016-17 Visiting Innovator event. Afterwards, Dr. Boaler spoke at an assembly of Steward students and hosted several group sessions with Steward faculty. The faculty participated in hands-on workshops that modeled teaching methods that support students' engagement, confidence, and freedom to explore complex mathematical concepts in a real-world context.

The day culminated in a math innovation-focused Maker Fair in the Bryan Innovation Lab, where interactive stations allowed community members to explore the creativity of math. Activities included the math of baking, spirographs, pie fractions, tangrams and origami, math in nature, Math Olympiad and Desmos, wellness dice, brain teasers with shapes, paper helicopters, Scratch voting ballots, math in music, and graphing.

In her lecture and discussion, Dr. Boaler shared research and techniques to support academic success, encourage enthusiasm, and promote brain development among students of all ages. Dr. Boaler established early on in her speech that there is no such thing as a “math brain” (a mind that is automatically wired to better understand math)—anyone can master the subject with the proper effort and teaching.

“There are studies coming out of brain science; they’re telling us that [our brains] can grow and change, and students can rewire their brains in a short amount of time,” she said. “What we have to do is change what happens in many schools where it is decided that some students are very good at math and others aren’t; therefore they are taught differently from a younger age. That has to stop.”

She went on to cite the research of fellow Stanford Professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., who has done extensive psychological research on the mindsets people use to understand themselves and guide their behavior. Dr. Dweck concluded that fixed mindsets occur when one believes his or her intelligence is limited, while growth mindsets occur when one believes he or she can learn anything.

“What you believe about yourself will most definitely impact your learning in every situation,” Dr. Boaler said. “Studies show that children with a growth mindset will always move onwards and upwards.”

Terri Davis, a Title I math specialist at Marguerite F. Christian Elementary School, has read much of Dr. Boaler’s research and works to implement growth mindsets among her students, especially those struggling with math. She attended Dr. Boaler’s lecture to find out more that she can do to improve her students’ learning.

“Our school was in danger of being unaccredited, so we took to heart a lot of the ideas and tactics associated with growth mindset,” Ms. Davis said. “Our standardized test scores went from 58 percent to 80 percent in three years. It really changed the learning culture of our school.”

Steward’s Lower School Enrichment Coordinator Suzanne Casey was one of several Lower School faculty members who took part in an online course offered by Dr. Boaler (read about this experience here in Director of Lower School Ingrid Moore's thought leadership article, "Encouraging a Growth Mindset"). She said she was excited to hear more about theories associated with growth mindset, particularly about how to improve math skills through visual activities.

“The visual part of your brain needs to be fully engaged to understand mathematical concepts,” she said. “Beyond worksheets, opportunities to express math thinking in different ways are essential to student success. I’m excited to challenge myself to have our students engage in various types of learning activities so we can all grow together.”

In order to encourage a growth mindset, Dr. Boaler presented several tactics, such as avoiding the act of labeling children as “gifted” or “smart”—this type of “damaging praise” can ultimately hurt children if they associate their level of intelligence with natural abilities, thus they try to rely on their “talents” rather than working hard to solve a problem. It’s more important to support children, she said, and show them that they can do anything they set their minds to.

“Your words really matter—it’s as true for parents as it is for teachers,” she said. “You give children the most important messages all the time. We need to keep saying to kids, ‘I know you can do this,’ ‘You can do anything,’ and ‘I believe in you.’ These words are what make all the difference.”

To learn more about Dr. Boaler’s work and to access free resources, click here. To access photos from the day's events, click here.





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