Stanford Professor: We Need to Take the Fear Out of Learning Math

Young math learners are done a major disservice by speed trials and drills, says education expert Jo Boaler. We need to redesign education so that students work on problems they enjoy.

Jo Boaler is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and a major proponent of education reform. She's a big fan of equitable classrooms and intuitive learning strategies, less so of rote memorization and other processes that make learning math a joyless endeavor. Some of her recent work is highlighted in a piece at Stanford News in which she explains to reporter Clifton B. Parker that the key to improving America's dismal levels of mathematics prowess is in extricating fear and pressure from the learning process:


"'There is a common and damaging misconception in mathematics—the idea that strong math students are fast math students,' said Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor of mathematics education and the lead author on a new working paper. Boaler's co-authors are Cathy Williams, co-founder of Stanford's YouCubed, and Amanda Confer, a Stanford graduate student in education...

But according to Boaler, when students are stressed—such as when they are solving math questions under time pressure—the working memory becomes blocked and the students cannot as easily recall the math facts they had previously studied. This particularly occurs among higher-achieving students and female students, she said.

Some estimates suggest that at least a third of students experience extreme stress or 'math anxiety' when they take a timed test, no matter their level of achievement. 'When we put students through this anxiety-provoking experience, we lose students from mathematics,' she said."

What's important to grasp here is that the ways we've evaluated math students in the past has been all wrong. We've rewarded students who can get away with regurgitating simple formulas under pressure. The problem is that mathematics is supposed to teach us new, evaluative ways of thinking. It's not useful to just cram numbers for the near future. Mathematicians don't let time confine their thoughts—why do we let time dictate our evaluations of children?

Read more at Stanford News and let us know what you think.

Photo credit: Victor Naumik / Shutterstock

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