Online Course Instructs Teachers on How Get Students to Love Math

Fear of math might not be a recognized medical phobia, but it strikes a large number of both young people and adults – even those who have never been thrown by any other academic subject. Professor Jo Boaler, who teachers a freshman seminar at Stanford University, found that this fear was prevalent among the 18 students enrolled in her course – even though the students were all good enough to impress the admissions counselors at one of the world’s top institutions.

Overcoming students’ math reticence was the focus of the course – as was teaching them that mathematics was more than just drills and memorization. Instead, Boaler teaches that success in the subject requires collaboration, discussion and creativity, as well as overcoming old prejudices reinforced since the days of multiplication table recitations in grade school.

Boaler’s success in convincing her students to embrace math ignited a desire to bring the message to a wider audience. Thus, explains Jonathan Rabinovitz of Stanford News, was born How to Learn Math, an online course targeted at K-12 teachers and parents who want their students and children to learn to love rather than fear their daily math class.

It will be offered, beginning July 15, through the university’s new open-source platform, OpenEdX. Already more than 20,000 people have enrolled. A course listing on the Stanford Online website provides further detail about the lessons and how to register. Boaler will also offer a version of the course designed especially for students from ages around 10 to adult in the 2013-14 school year.

Boaler has devoted her career to studying math teaching and learning why math evokes such strong negative feelings among so many. One survey of adults found that four out of 10 hated math in school, twice as many as any other subject. Her research presents evidence that an approach to teaching math that includes problem solving, mathematical discussions and the use of real-life examples can not only make students more enthusiastic about the subject but also improve their performance.

The key to being a better math teacher, according to Boaler, is knowing how to convince students that loving and excelling in mathematics is not only for a chosen few. Boaler thinks that many instructors approach the subject by elevating drilling and memorization over conceptual understanding is to blame for this widely held misapprehension. Students fail to grasp the ideas behind things they learn, which means that they can’t adopt their knowledge to more difficult material down the road, get discouraged and disconnect.

Forever after, posits Boaler, math becomes a feared opponent one must get past rather than a topic one can embrace.

In Boaler’s approach, a teacher could ask a class of students how they can solve the problem 18 times 5, without pen and paper. The teacher then collects the different methods and compares them. There are several different ways of solving the problem, including multiplying 20 x 5 and subtracting 2 x 5; multiplying 18 x 10 and halving the answer; or adding 8 x 5 and 10 x 5 – all ways to reach 90. The course will feature interviews with successful users of math in different, interesting jobs – a filmmaker and an inventor of self-driving cars – to demonstrate the importance of conceptual math and the types of mathematical relationships that may benefit students.