This is an opinion piece written by David Bowman, in response to Professor Jo Boaler’s working research paper on how drilling mathematical concepts, currently in vogue by politicians, is potentially damaging to students, helping to switch them off enjoying the subject from an early age. You can read more about the research paper by reading our report here.
To learn something we need to make mistakes; we need to see a reason for it; and we need to understand the concepts that are being learnt.
My best Christmas present was attending Professor Jo Boaler speaking with the GLOWmaths hub at Oxford University. Her ideas and research findings match my life experiences and why I believe learning maths is vital to the prosperity of both individuals and country. With a degree in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, I am considered a “math person”. I know that my success is due to good teaching and perseverance but also that I had played cards, darts, chess and other board games at home and would try to solve problems rather than read. In Boaler’s words, I had developed “number sense” outside of my formal maths lessons and had started to mould the plasticity of my brain. I was happy learning more complex aspects of school. I was fluent in my times-tables but had friends who were scared of them and who rapidly fell behind my subject expertise because they didn’t have a maths mind.
In 2001 I changed from a successful career in software because I was no longer able to recruit enough people with initiative and problem-solving skills. If I wanted an employee who could start from a blank sheet of paper and work a solution through they usually had an A level in maths. They were also the ones prepared to go the “extra mile” in effort. On entering education, I was immediately surprised that it was universally accepted that some people were good at maths and if you weren’t then it was quite ok to say so. I seemed to be a lone voice suggesting that with hard work and belief students could learn. I introduced the strapline “believe2achieve”. I convinced students that they could be successful and over the years had comments such as “thank you for making me be the best I can be”.
Then I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Jo Boaler’s Elephant in the Classroom. Their research made sense. To learn something we need to make mistakes; we need to see a reason for it, and; we need to understand the concepts that are being learnt. We also need to practise to make the learning permanent. I was telling my students that maths is a mixture of knowledge (Boaler’s “maths facts”) but the most important aspect was the skill of using and applying that knowledge.
I struggle to believe that everybody can be an Andrew Wiles, but I am convinced that the majority with the right Academic Mindsets and sound teaching can achieve at least a C in today’s currency, and an A/S in maths. Gaining a “5” in the new currency is going to be harder but is achievable.
The maths and mindsets revolution needs to start in Primary schools, with secondary’s supporting and changing mindsets (of teachers and students). Parents must be targeted and the national numeracy initiative is great here. Using Boaler’s approach and resources from sites such as nrich and youcubed children can gain number sense and learn how to solve problems. They can enjoy maths. They will know times tables but more importantly, they will understand why the times tables to 10 can be shown as only 21 facts. They will understand if 7 x 8 = 56 then 56÷8 = 7.
I had the privilege of listening to Boaler at the GLOWmaths conference at Oxford University in December. She is inspiring and her arguments are compelling. I am convinced that every parent and teacher should hear the message. As she says “now is the time to use it”.
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I’ve long thought about your comment, “the times tables to 10 can be shown as only 21 facts.” I’ve been dying to write them all out. I didn’t know it was only 21, but I felt that narrowing down the numbers to prime factors only might make a huge reduction in the 100 “facts” that we ask kids to know.