Inspiring Maths Success For All

Wonder what’s the right way to teach mathematics to children? Find out in this exclusive interview with Jo Boaler, one of the finest maths educators in the world.

By Rajesh Vishwanathan  • 11 min read

Inspiring Maths Success For All

Mathematics is about performing and not learning. Nine out of ten who read this line would concur. But, that’s not right. Mathematics is about learning and not performing. It is about connections and communications. It is about visual thinking. Over the years, even as the world made rapid technological advances in many fields, mathematics (at least the way it is taught) has struggled with lack of innovation in teaching. This is probably why the subject is often associated with words like fear, anxiety and failure. The phenomenon of mathematics anxiety is growing each day and there’s an urgent need to look at the way our children are embracing the subject. Who better to talk to us about it than Jo Boaler, the great maths educator from Stanford University. It’s a ParentCircle exclusive.

Nearly 60 per cent of students the world over fail in mathematics and that’s an alarming scenario. Does that mean there are fundamental flaws in the way mathematics is being taught in modern times?

You’re absolutely right. There are many things wrong in the way mathematics is taught in the current system. Mathematics today is taught using procedures and calculations, which is not what the subject is about. Brain science tells us that mathematics is a visual and creative subject that should look at logical thinking and problem-solving. When that happens, students are likely to be more engaged, enjoy it and do better. But, when it is taught as procedures, calculations and speed, it can be upsetting for many students. If you look at the way maths educators work, they treat it as a multi-dimensional subject where they work slowly, visually and enjoy making models. But when it comes to students, it is taught in a one-dimensional way.

Is this happening because of exaggerated emphasis on grades and marks? Are they killing the very essence of a subject like mathematics?

Unfortunately, the world over, mathematics is the most over-graded, over-tested subject in the curriculum. There is no evidence to suggest grades or tests increase learning. Grades end up making students feel they are performing and not learning. We need to communicate positively to our children and tell them that they can learn anything. The heart of mathematics is reasoning – to be able to talk about why things happen, and understanding logical connections. Scientists prove things by solving cases while mathematicians look at reasoning. It’s very hard to develop good reasoning without talking to others and collaborating. For example, if we ask children to find out the area of a 4×12 rectangle, all they do is calculate one straight answer using a formula. Alternatively, we can ask students what rectangles look like. This opens up the question – children will become very interested and their eyes widen in excitement.

They try to find different examples and are thinking about the relationship between length and breadth. They will draw different things, look at the room, discuss ideas. Just look at the way it opens up their imagination.

Mathematics today is taught using procedures and calculations, which is not what the subject is about

So, the emphasis is on a progressive approach…

There’s nothing that students cannot learn if they are exposed to the right teaching methods. They need to believe in themselves and get the right messages from parents. Time tests, time pressures and competition are fundamental areas where homes and classrooms go wrong. Unfortunately, in the world that we live in, mathematics is seen as a split between ‘you can do it’ and ‘you can’t do it’. It happens in the US, UK and many other countries. To master mathematics, everybody should learn together and create visual pathways. We need an extremely progressive education system.

But can a progressive system thrive in competitive environments? Is competition the real dampener?

Competition can be very upsetting. For many people, it can shut down parts of the brain. Competition and speed makes them feel anxious and that is not good at all for mathematical thinking. I think it is okay to have competition if people feel good about it but it is sad that mathematics has been made into such a competitive subject. Competition and speed have robbed the subject of its beauty and enjoyment. Children should be allowed to make mistakes when it comes to mathematics. When we tell students how good mistakes are for their brain, it changes everything. Mistakes and struggles are very important in mathematics.

Talking about mistakes and struggles, there’s a general perception that finger counting means you look childish and are struggling in maths. You are a complete disbeliever of that theory…

It is very bad to stop children from using their fingers to count. Finger counting comes with strong neurological benefits. Research indicates that our fingers work the same way as our brains. In simple words, we are actually using our fingers in the brain while counting. So, why do we hesitate to use our fingers to count? It is a myth that children who use their fingers struggle; they are actually smarter. Finger perception is very important in teaching mathematics. This is probably why some of the great pianists in the world were also astute mathematicians.

What’s the right age to start teaching mathematics formally?

Well, different countries have different rules. In Finland, which is a very high-performing country, educators do not teach mathematics until the age of 7. But they still end up topping mathematics in the world by the time they turn 15. So, it is not important to start very early. A lot of parents are caught in this misconception – maths learning is difficult – you’ve got to be faster and start very early in a child’s life. Many people incorrectly believe that being good at maths means being fast at maths. There is an urgent need to delink maths from speed.

You’ve also advocated the need to build on a growth mindset

Growth mindset is when you believe that you can learn anything, and when you know that you could grow your intelligence. Fixed mindset is when you think your intelligence is more or less fixed and there’s not a lot you could do to change that. One way to build a growth mindset is by praising what students have learned, not them as individuals. So instead of saying “you are so smart”, say “it is great that you have learned that.”

Youcubed’s (maths centre at Stanford University) mission is to inspire all maths learners. You seem to be on the right track…

We have millions of teachers coming every month from over 120 countries. We have online classes for teachers taken by 60,000 teachers and classes for students, which are attended by 1,60,000 students. We have videos that teachers can show to children in various classrooms. We really hope to create this huge awareness about visual thinking.

Your message to parents

Encourage visual mathematics. Ask your children to draw solutions instead of merely calculating. Don’t use flash cards, speed competitions, timed tests. Instead, focus on value depth, creativity, different ways of thinking about maths, and different explanations. You will see a mathematician in your child.

Jo’s tips for unlocking the power of mathematics

  1. Mathematics is very easy to learn
  2. Mistakes are fine and valuable
  3. Questions are very important
  4. Mathematics is about creativity, visual thinking and making sense of things
  5. Depth is more important than speed
  6. Maths is about connections and communications
  7. Maths is about learning and not performing

Finger activities for toddlers

Try these amazing finger activities for your toddler and you’ll realise how exciting mathematics can be for you and your little one. 

Jo Boaler hall of fame

  • Winner of the British Educational Research Association Award in 1996
  • Consultant, the White House Commission on Women and Girls in 2014
  • Winner of a Chair of Excellence from the Marie Curie Foundation and European Union – 2007 to 2010
  • Elected Fellow, The Royal Society of Arts, England in 1998
  • Featured in a 2014 BBC Series on the eight educators whose ideas are 'transforming education'
  • Author of Mathematical Mindsets, a best-selling book that promotes effective teaching of mathematics using the growth mindset 

Mathematics is a wonderful subject when approached correctly. Follow these tips from the expert and help your child fall in love with maths.

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