Recently, I began a MOOC (massive open online course) called How to Learn Math – For Teachers and Parents (2). More than 40,000 people took the last class – mainly teachers, parents and school administrators. 95% of people completing the end of course survey said that they would change their teaching or ways of helping as a result of the course. The course offers important new research ideas on learning, the brain, and math that can transform students’ experiences with math and is based on the work of and narrated by Jo Boaler. It’s divided into 8 sessions and each one ends with a prompt to write a one paragraph summary reflection on the ideas. My plan is to post those reflections here.
In the first session, Knocking Down the Myths About Math, there are 4 ideas that speak to me.
There’s more to math than calculations. We tend to concentrate so much of what we do in mathematics on the right answer and less on the “why” and the “how”. It’s these latter questions that bring out the creativity and beauty of mathematics that students can become curious about.
There’s no such thing as a “math brain”. A colleague of mine once recalled a parent/teacher interview in which she explained to a parent that their child didn’t have a “math brain”. Recent brain research tells us that everyone has the potential to learn mathematics. When students struggle with mathematics it’s not because they have the wrong kind of brain or that they inherited their parents’ math deficient brain. Admitting to students that the math is too “hard” or that “it’s just not your thing” is damaging especially if those messages are directed at female students or students with particular ethnic backgrounds.
Stereotypes are always in the air. It used to be that when researchers administered a math ability test and reminded students of gender differences in math, female students would under perform. It has since been discovered that just merely having students check a gender box results in under performance for females. If students aren’t reminded of their gender, there is no under performance. There are similar results for students with particular ethnic backgrounds. Most teachers remain very aware of their messaging when communicating with students but how many realize that the mere mention of gender before or during an assessment could have such an effect on females?
Our words are very powerful. Studies have been done where teachers would include messages of encouragement in their feedback resulting in a significant increase in achievement for up to a year later with no other change. The feedback was particularly effective when given to students of colour. The key to this feedback was that students had to believe that they were being held to a high standard and that their teacher believed in their potential.