Here We Go Again….

Yet another attempt, this time from Stanford which makes it of local concern, to “revolutionize math.”

Stanford University Professor of Math Education Jo Boaler has an article in Time magazine dated 10/5/2017.  Some quotes follow:

Math anxiety is a rampant problem across the country. Researchers now know that when people with math anxiety encounter numbers, a fear center in the brain lights up — the same fear center that lights up when people see snakes or spiders. Anxiety is not limited to low-achieving students. Many of the undergraduates I teach at Stanford University, some of the most successful students in the nation, are math traumatized.

The problem is the performance culture in our schools, more present in math than in any other subject. Students believe that the purpose of math class is to demonstrate that they can quickly find the answers.

My research on math learners suggests that when students think they’re in class to learn — to explore ideas and think freely — they understand more and achieve at higher levels than when they think the point is to get questions right.

A few years ago I taught a summer math camp for sixth and seventh graders using open, creative, visual math tasks. The students were not judged or graded, and the teachers valued and celebrated mistakes and struggle. At the end of the camp, some students described feeling “mathematically free.” One said: “A lot of people think of school as prison — you don’t have any freedom. But you have a lot of freedom in math camp. You can run wild, you can pass ideas by each other.” For many people, the words “math” and “freedom” can’t be put in the same sentence — because they’re taught mathematics as a subject of rules, conformity and constant performance.

Most would agree that we want students to feel like their minds can “run wild” with ideas. But so many students experience the opposite feeling. Our grading and testing practices are largely responsible. It’s bad enough when students receive grades at the end of each unit or course that tell them how capable they are, but technological advances like digital grade portals have meant that students can see where their grades stand, and when they change, every minute of every day. This has amplified the performance pressure on students. Research has shown that students only have to think they’re being graded for their achievement to go down. Math teachers who replace grading with constructive written comments increase student’s learning. I know the most freeing comment I give to my Stanford students is this: I am not going to give you a grade for this class. Do this for yourself, for your own learning.

Because this is coming from the, “tah-dah,” Stanford School of Education I expect this will have local impact.

In fact, I actually agree with some of the mathematics instructional methods that she describes.


  1. The author is starting and selling a line of textbooks through her website, a serious issue of educational research conflict of interest that I have commented on numerous times before, and, more importantly,
  2. ideas that may work in a school staffed by university education school teachers may still fail miserably when rolled out to the world at large.  I recall the Whole Language approach to reading, the idea of not correcting children’s writing because it harms their self-esteem, and programs like Everyday Mathematics.

The reason behind issue number 2 is because we devote woefully inadequate funds to teacher training once they leave education school.  Typical “professional development” in public schools consists of little more than 2-3 days a year of training sessions created by each local school.

While I would be the first in line to agree that the current emphasis on standardized testing, especially the AP curriculum, is way overdone, telling K-12 students to do math for “their own learning” (like Dr. Boaler does above for her Stanford students) is a recipe for promoting gross ignorance.

Anyone who has ever been in school knows that grades are a carrot and a stick, the latter being used not only to hold the carrot out in front of the animal to keep it running, but also as an occasional prod.  I realize that this metaphor will nauseate some “progressive” educators. So be it.

The trick is to find the proper balance between motivating a student with grades without crushing their desire to learn.  This is best done by training good teachers who can inspire students by demonstrating their personal enthusiasm for an academic subject without also lying to them that the real world will somehow refrain from evaluating them.

Instead of providing money for teacher training, I fear that we will keep engaging in endless rounds of new educational experimentation, new textbook purchases, officially-mandated curriculum changes, and the resulting confusion and disrupted lesson plans that seem to be the one unchanging aspect of California public education.

Caveat emptor!!





Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

2 thoughts on “Here We Go Again….”

  1. Right on! I am encountering this exact problem in my house. My brilliant 5th grade cannot put 8X9 =73 correctly. I need to spend my career time to teach her basic math it seems. I agree that Math is a science of precision. You cannot praise a kid for getting into the 70’s if not 72. I agree that a lot of new experiments can be confusing because the kids need to learn basics in order to get really creative.


  2. I’m a lifelong learner in math and am determined to undo the learned fear of math from 8 th grade onward. It’s human nature to practice avoidance, which only enforces the fear. My husband is a full professor in the College of Business at SF State, and has encouraged me to audit classes that will help develop my long neglected math skills. Learned fear of math from hypercritical math studies in high school linger for a lifetime but can be undone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: