Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Teaching students learn and love maths

 Facing up to the elephant in the classroom - the mind changing ideas of Jo Boaler

Prof Jo Boaler
This book, by mathematics Professor of Mathematics Jo Boaler, will transform your attitude to mathematics teaching. One school, led by an ex maths adviser, makes use of her ideas and a school near me has bought multiple copies which has transformed the teachers attitudes towards maths.

The expression ‘there is an elephant in the room’ is the belief that ‘success in maths is a sign of general intelligence and that some people can do maths and others can’t.’

Jo Boaler makes two main points – maths can be a fun activity for all students but to achieve this needs the removal of an approach based on ability grouping.  The one in five currently failing in our schools, (notwithstanding the effects of poverty) see themselves as failures, as defined by numeracy and literacy, and the premise of this book that  this is, in good part, to the result of the use of ability grouping. Jo Boaler’s book reports on the depressing research to back her position on ability grouping.

What maths involved in observing monarchs
‘Far too many students hate maths’ Jo Boaler writes. ‘As a result adults around the world fear maths and avoid it at all costs. Mathematics plays unique role in in the learning of most children – it is the subject that makes them feel both helpless and stupid. Maths more than any subject, has the power to crush children’s confidence….but things could be completely different and maths could be a source of great pleasure and confidence for people.’

‘When the real maths is taught instead- the whole subject that involved problem solving, creating ideas and representations, exploring puzzles, discussing methods any many different way of working, then more people are successful.’

‘More worrying perhaps, students are made to feel inadequate in maths from a very young age, which results in their developing a very negative view of the subject.’

Inspirational book
Jo Boaler’s book set out to remedy this situation by making school maths more in line with real life problem solving and in the process helping all children develop self confidence in maths.  Unfortunately maths in school is used by teachers as a tool to sort, track and label children. This brutal labelling is out of sync with the mixed ability teaching of counties that score highly on international testing – Finland, Korea and Japan.

Maths classes need to change for the better. Things need to change. People don’t like maths because of the way it is misrepresented in school. Boaler argues that ‘school classrooms should give children a sense of the nature of mathematics. The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum makes it clear what is expected, ‘Mathematics is the exploration and use of patterns and relationships in quantities, space and time’….’By studying mathematics and statistics, children develop the ability to think creatively, strategically and logically’. Such a meaningful approach ‘is critical in halting the low achievement’ of many students in maths.

In real life mathematicians work on long, often ill-defined, problems. Successful mathematicians have learnt to problem solve, making use of enlightened trial and error (guessing and estimating) and it is this approach children should get a ‘feel for’.

This is not the approach to be seen in our schools. All too often maths is an isolated activity with children being taught in ability groups to solve prescribed problems or questions set by their teachers. As a result most students give up on the subject.

To bring back to life in classrooms involves giving children a sense of living mathematics where children are able to ask their own questions about maths challenges that appeal to them – often to solve problems arising in other curriculum areas.  This is applied maths; maths is a way of interpreting the world – children doing something with their maths. ‘Children need to engage, do, act, perform, problem solve for if they don’t use mathematics as they learn it they will find it difficult to do so in other situations.’  Boaler’s word echo the need for students to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’ of the NZ Curriculum, and one could add by working with others.

‘Schools’, she writes, ‘cannotkeep pursuing an educational model’ that results in most people giving up onthe subject. Teachers instead should aim at all their students enjoying and succeeding at maths. ‘Children begin school as natural problem solvers’ – this positive attitude needs protecting.

What is going wrong is the grouping of their students by ability a process that is increasing in UK schools with the importance of national testing and targets.  Almost all New Zealand schools use ability grouping from the time students enter schooling. This grouping is done as early as age 4 in England and 88% stay there until they leave school. Boaler finds this a ‘chilling statistic’. ‘Such grouping contravenes basic knowledge aboutchild development and learning; children develop at different rates and they reveal different strengths and dispositions at various stages of their development.’ Ironically since the UK has introduced target the UK has dropped from eighth to 24th in international tests of mathematical problem solving.

The issue of the problem ofgrouping children by ability ‘goes against all research on children’s learningand effective forms of grouping’ but it is still the approach New Zealand schools use – and in some cases children during maths times are grouped (set) by ability across classes.

Exploring patterns in maths
Boaler’s book provides plentiful examples of real maths problem solving with students working collaboratively in groups discussing their findings as they work towards solutions.  This collaborative approach is in contrast with the silent individual approach of most current school maths. Maths makes sense as children talk through their ideas and listen to the thoughts of others.

'to seek, use and create knowledge'
‘Silent maths gives students the wrong idea about mathematics; it is very hard to reason about mathematics when working in silence’. ‘Mathematical discussions are also an excellent resource for student understanding’. ‘Maths teachers need to organize productive mathematical discussions.’ Such teaching needs realistic contexts where students are given real that need mathematical analysis.’

Boaler’s book outlines in detail effective classroom practices using a project based approach with students working in mixed ability groups usually lasting about three weeks based around authentic maths challenges resulting communicating what they have discovered. The best models I can think of are the challenges students undertake as part of Math’s Fairs (or Science or Technology challenges).

Maths project Winchester School
Boaler is critical of the hyper-accountability that is now a feature of school assessment and provides positive ideas for assessment for learning to develop students as confident problem solvers

Boaler’s book is a must for schools who want to ensure all their students enjoy and succeed at maths and to encourage teachers to see maths in a new light.

My advice is to buy a few copies for your school to share with teachers and see what eventuates.

Jo Boaler u-tube

For more information read Charles Lovett


Karyn said...

How interesting.

Why is it Maths ability seems to be genetic? Parents often say things like, I wasn't any good at Maths either. They never say that about Social Studies or Spanish.

In my experience, visiting my Yr 9 learners in Maths, there is a lot more emphasis on strategies (so getting the correct answer isn't down to luck, but down to making use of the right strategy), collaboration, and attempting to use real world contexts than when I last learnt Maths!

I also think for many children, Maths is only 'spoken' in class. It is like learning a new language and when you only use it in class 200 mins a week, it's hard to become fluent.

I also think many Maths teachers in the snr high school perpetuate the idea that only the brightest can study Maths at that level - I don't feel there is a lot of encouragement for Joe Average to persevere. It's las if they only want the 'brainest' kids in Yr 12 and 13 Maths.

I will definitely be looking up this book!

Bruce Hammonds said...

It's clear we all don't have the same innate talent in maths but we all are able to reach a comfortable level with the right teaching.

One problem is that in the West 'we' value ability while in Asian cultures 'they' value effort. And in such cultures education is valued and teachers ensure all achieve without demeaning ability grouping.

In Western cultures girls are not expected to do well.

Change the expectations, work on authentic topics collaboratively and maths will be a positive experience for all.