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Professor Jo Boaler may have moved halfway across the globe five years ago to become Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University in California, but she continues to take a keen interest in how numeracy is taught back home.
Last week, her call for Britain to stop testing young children on their ability to recite times tables – because it causes “crippling fear” and “puts them off maths” – prompted a backlash from fellow academics who believe the opposite.
“Research has pinpointed the onset of ‘maths anxiety’ around the age of eight,” she explains, “when they start doing times tables tests. They are all about speed and memory. If someone isn’t fast at doing them, they get the idea they aren’t good at maths and they lose confidence.”
That in its turn sends them on to secondary school with a view that “maths isn’t for them”.
Prof Boaler, whose book The Elephant in the Classroom remains a bible for many maths’ teachers, is clear that being “good” at times tables should never be equated with being “good at maths”.
“We know that speed and the ability to memorise is not a good indicator of maths potential. So to see this policy being pushed in Britain now is simply heartbreaking.”
Earlier this autumn, she returned to the UK to support an initiative in 300 schools nationwide. The “Week of Inspirational Maths” followed a five-stage programme, complete with lesson plans designed with the campaigning group National Numeracy, which exemplified how she believes maths should be taught.
“Every day started with a video that aims to get across our key mindset messages,” explains this Birmingham-born former classroom teacher, whose first post in the mid-Eighties was at Ed Miliband’s alma mater, Haverstock comprehensive school in north London. Changing mindsets is at the very heart of Prof Boaler’s campaign to overhaul traditional maths teaching.
In particular, she believes that emerging brain science proves that old notions that pupils either “get” or “don’t get” maths are among the key causes of over 30 per cent of British 16-year-olds currently failing even to manage a C grade in their GCSEs (as highlighted in the Telegraph’s Make Britain Count campaign in 2012).
“We are learning more about the plasticity of the brain – its capacity to grow and change within a short period of time,” she says. “Research has shown that the brain can change in three weeks. Imagine what could happen in a year of maths classes if students were given the right materials and received positive messages about their potential and ability.”
That is precisely what the Week of Inspirational Maths sought to provide. But it was not, she regrets, supported by the Department for Education. Government policy appears to be going in the other direction. It plans to make schools ensure that, by the age of eight, children have memorised their times tables up to 12. “It is a recipe for causing the early onset of maths anxiety,” laments Prof Boaler.
By contrast, the initiative encouraged pupils to visualise numbers as if they are made up of dots “to get to the core of multiplication and factors”. They also folded paper as a way into geometry, and watched shapes grow to introduce them to algebra.
“Visual materials prompt a different kind of brain activity to the numerical approach,” says Prof Boaler. “They allow children to see the connections. They start with something simple and then see the ideas develop.”
But her ideas are not shared by all of Britain’s teaching establishment. Her comments on times tables – reported in the TES – attracted fierce criticism.
Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, told the publication: “It is not the learning of times tables that is causing anxiety but rather it is lack of times table knowledge. It should be an educational entitlement that all children are helped to learn their times tables.”
Yet it seems that Prof Boaler’s voice is one with great appeal for those struggling with maths. Her youcubed.org website, which is packed with materials and practical suggestions for classroom teachers is proving hugely popular. Of the two million visits it has had in the past month, she reports, the second largest number come from Britain.
And feedback on the Week of Inspirational Maths has been positive. When combined with data from similar initiatives run by Prof Boaler in the States, it shows that 92 per cent of pupils say they enjoyed the activities, 94 per cent that the videos and activities helped them see that anyone can learn maths, and 96 per cent that they now know to keep going even when the work is hard and they make mistakes.
But while she is urging maths teachers to look West, the Department for Education is holding up the example of the East, of China, Singapore and South Korea, all top performers in global maths tables.
It is the example of these countries, with their traditional approach to maths teaching, that is apparently driving the focus on times tables. Prof Boaler argues that this is drawing the wrong conclusions about what lies behind the Asian schools’ success.
“They do not do rote learning in China, or memorisation,” she protests. “I went to China recently and their approach is also very visual, much more conceptual than we have been led to believe.
“No lesson I observed – and they were all about an hour long – would cover more than three questions. It is about students discussing ideas. If you are going to transmit ideas about maths, you have to work with questions that allow space within them for kids to learn.”
So it is not, she points out, a case of West versus East on how best to improve our national maths performance. West and East are telling us something very similar. We just need to start listening more carefully.
If hers is proving a controversial message to get over on home turf, though, back in the States success is following success. In September, she took part in a nationwide television special broadcast to launch XQ, a £33 million initiative funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, philanthropist widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, which is promising to “redefine high schools”.
Prof Boaler prefers to regard the number of people now attacking her and her ideas as anecdotal proof that what she is saying is being taken seriously. “Of course the attacks upset me,” she reflects, “but you know what upsets me more? It is children in British classrooms being asked to memorise their times tables and then growing up thinking they can’t do maths.”
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