This book, an updated edition of Stanford professor Jo Boaler’s seminal 2008 work of the same name, tackles an important if familiar issue: The United States has a mathematics problem. On the 2012 iteration of PISA, the international test administered by the OECD, we ranked thirty-sixth out of sixty-five countries in math performance—and twenty-seventh out of thirty-four among OECD members. More ominously, 70 percent of students attending two-year colleges require remedial math courses—which only one in ten successfully passes.
Boaler argues that American math education is ineffective for three reasons: First, classroom learning is too passive, with teachers lecturing from the blackboard instead of actively interacting with their students. Second, instruction doesn’t emphasize understanding and critical thought, leaning instead on memorization and regurgitation. And third, the contexts in which content is taught don’t reflect the way math is used in everyday life. Take for example the following textbook question: “A pizza is divided into fifths for five friends at a party. Three of the friends eat their slices, but then four more friends arrive. What fractions should the remaining two slices be divided into?” When, in real life, would you need this, when you could just order more pizza? This flawed approach leaves students ill prepared to use what they’ve learned in new situations, leading to both failure on assessments and widespread aversion to mathematics.
Boaler also expertly illustrates that this problem goes beyond poor scores on assessments. America’s math problem endangers the country’s future global competitiveness. For example, she cites research by Cal State/Northridge’s Julie Gainsburg, which concludes that “[t]he traditional K-12 mathematics curriculum, with its focus on performing computational manipulations, is unlikely to prepare students for the problem-solving demands of the high-tech workplace.”
Boaler praises the Common Core State Standards for their inclusion of mathematical practices such as problem solving, sense making, perseverance, and reasoning. These “ways of being mathematical” are of critical importance for students trying to become successful in math. As she concludes in one chapter, “it is impossible to know exactly which mathematical methods will be most helpful in the future, [therefore] it is so important that schools develop flexible thinkers who can draw from a variety of mathematical principles in solving problems.”
As a former math teacher, I found this book to be a delightful mix of moments of familiarity (“Been there, tried that.”) and moments of clarity (“I really wish I had known that back when…”). And unlike other texts that attempt to define and describe effective math instruction but only serve up platitudes and trite techniques, it offers practical ways to help all math learners. Boaler may not be a popular figure among teachers and reformers who favor a more traditional approach, but everyone else should find her work interesting, readable, and actionable.
SOURCE: Jo Boaler, What's Math Got to Do with It?: How Teachers and Parents Can Transform Mathematics Learning and Inspire Success (New York: Penguin Book, 2015).