Book Review: What’s math got to do with it?

I recently read What’s math got to do with it? by Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University. The book is both engaging and informative. While filled with references to current research in a variety of fields, her prose is accessible, interesting and relevant to anyone with an interest in how children learn math, whether they are trained as educators or not.

The kind of math classroom that Dr. Boaler describes resonated with my own experience in teaching math, but also inspired me to extend the use of inquiry in order to strengthen students’ conceptual understanding. I was specifically struck by a few of her key points.

Dr. Boaler is an avid proponent of a growth mindset. She points to brain research indicating that students learn more from making a mistakes than they do from answering correctly. Thus, math instruction should be designed to give students complex, challenging work that requires them to try a variety of approaches and strategies so that they can learn from experience what works; however, for this to be successful, it is important for teachers, parents and students to think of mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than evidence of weakness or failure.

Another prominent theme in the book was the importance of students knowing the why in addition to the how of mathematics, both in terms of developing understanding and in order to increase motivation. For example, students who understand why the long division algorithm works are better able to apply it and more engaged in learning and using it. This kind of understanding also helps students to make connections between different math topics which would otherwise seem distinct. Dr. Boaler illustrates this very well in a brief video that you can see here.

Would you like to know more? A new edition of What’s math got to do with it?was published recently and copies are widely available. There is also a free online course geared towards students (although also applicable to parents and teachers) available through Stanford Online. You can also browse a collection of resources developed by Dr. Boaler and her colleagues at Stanford University on the YouCubed website.

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