Math has been a traditionally thorny subject in many American schools. Lots of children dislike math and many more adults stopped taking mathematics as soon as they are able, even when they were successful in their classes. At the same time, mathematical thinking is a crucial part of many of the most exciting and growing careers in science, technology, engineering and math, not to mention important for a general understanding of the mathematical world around us. So, what can U.S. math educators do to shift this dynamic?

Stanford Mathematics Education Professor Jo Boaler is championing a dramatic shift in how many math teachers approach instruction. Rather than focusing on the algorithms and procedures that make mathematics feel like a lock-step process — with one right way of solving problems — Boaler encourages teachers to embrace the visual aspects of math. She encourages teachers to ask students to grapple with open-ended problems, to share ideas and to see math as a creative endeavor. She works with students every summer and says that when students are in a math environment that doesn’t focus on performance, speed, procedures, and right and wrong answers they thrive. They even begin to change their perceptions of whether they can or can’t do math.

Solving The Math Problem (Subtitles) from YouCubed on Vimeo.

In an opinion piece for The Hechinger Report, Boaler lays out five ways teachers can approach instruction differently. She points out that many students experience math anxiety, which is negatively related to performance. While psychology research has pointed to smaller interventions to lower anxiety before tests or to help students combat stereotype threat, Boaler says those measures fall short. She writes:

Widespread, prevalent among women and hugely damaging, math anxiety is prompted in the early years when timed tests are given in classrooms and it snowballs from there. Psychologists’ recommendations — including counseling and words to repeat before a test — severely miss the mark. The only way to turn our nation around is to change the way we teach and view math. The problems that we have now include these:

First, math is often taught as a performance subject. Ask your children what their role is in math class, and they are very likely to say it is to get questions correct. They do not say this about other subjects. More than any other subject math is about tests, grades, homework and competitions.

Check out Boaler’s recommendations to change the math teaching paradigm in the U.S.

OPINION: It’s time to stop the clock on math anxiety. Here’s the latest research on how – The Hechinger Report

Our future depends on mathematical thinking, but math trauma extends across our country – and the world – due to the ineffective ways the subject is often taught in classrooms, as a narrow set of procedures that students are expected to reproduce at high speed.

Five Ways To Shift Teaching Practice So Students Feel Less Math Anxious 5 April,2017Katrina Schwartz
  • tft

    Teachers don’t decide what or how teach. That would be the administration. All that matters now is The Test.

  • Peter Page

    I definitely agree that math anxiety (and test/classroom anxiety more generally) is a problem in schools right now. I’ve read a few research articles recently on the subject and it seems like some contributing factors are definitely stereotype threat as mentioned above, but also student self-image as well as the amount of working memory an individual has at their disposal. One study conducted by Beilock, S.L. (2008) talked about “how situation-induced feelings of pressure can undermine math performance in anyone, not just why dispositionally math-anxious individuals perform poorly. Nonetheless, similar to the idea that math anxiety robs one of the cognitive capacity needed to successfully execute math tasks, our findings suggest that suboptimal math performance in stress-laden situations arises because worries about the situation compete for the working memory (WM) available for performance.” The second sentence I think especially describes what happens with stereotype threat in classrooms or on tests. The working memory connection to math anxiety is interesting because working memory is so easily captured by anxiety in general and seemingly can lead people to avoidance anxiety if they constantly experience it. I do not know if there have been studies linking prolonged anxiety to developing avoidance anxiety but it seems like a reasonable step to make, at least for people who are more prone to experiencing anxiety. I think a look into reducing stress in classrooms and on tests is a valuable step towards improving academic performance across many fields of study.

  • Jim Kayle

    Lots of children dislike math and additional adults stopped taking mathematics as soon as they’re able, even though they were successful in
    their classes.



Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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