Stanford research shows that students do better on tests when teachers face down their math demons

“The idea that some of us are ‘math people’ and some are not is a myth that pervades Western society,” Jo Boaler, a professor of math education at Stanford University, writes in a revealing new study. “This damaging idea has been challenged in recent years by neuroscience showing that mathematics is a subject, like all others, that is learned through hard work and practice.”

Boaler explains that many adults have an apprehensive relationship with math—which winds up doing a disservice to future generations. Parents and teachers with anxiety about algebra and equations transmit those feelings to their children and students, who then perform worse on math. Her new study shows what happens when teachers finally face their fears.

The study, published in Education Sciences, shows that a three-year course to help teachers challenge the “math person” myth, while teaching them about brain science and showing them effective math teaching methods, results in gains for students—with the greatest gains for girls and English language learners.

“As teachers reevaluate their own potential as learners, they are more likely to embrace new forms of teaching. This helps their students build confidence, develop positive attitudes and, ultimately, achieve better test scores,” Boaler said in a statement accompanying the research.

Boaler and her team picked 40 fifth-grade teachers from eight school districts in central California to take an online course, “How to Learn Math,” through Stanford’s OpenEdX platform. The course, which takes about 30 to 40 hours to complete, translates research on mathematics education, mindset, and neuroscience into practical teaching ideas. The teachers also meet in person to talk about the class and how to apply it in the classroom and receive on-site coaching.

Afterward, they interviewed the teachers, observed their classrooms, and used state tests to evaluate kids’ performance. The kids in the study gained eight points, or the equivalent of 3.5 months of instruction, on a standardized California test. The children who lagged the most also gained the most: economically disadvantaged students gained five months’ worth of instruction, girls gained six months, and English language learners added nine months.

Previous research shows that when teachers feel math anxiety, girls’ performance can suffer. Additional research from the University of Chicago shows the same is true for parents: those who were anxious themselves were more likely to transmit this anxiety to their kids if they spent a lot of time helping them with homework. (This latter point suggests the issue was not genetic but behavioral, since the children who helped with homework showed the greatest transmission effect.)

Boaler’s work tries to empower teachers to confront this. She is a disciple of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, whose research on growth mindset—the belief that your effort matters and that intelligence is malleable, not fixed at birth—has permeated every corner of the globe. (Dweck’s work has been challenged by some, including Dweck herself, who says it’s being misconstrued.)

In an email to subscribers to YouCubed, a site dedicated to building better math mindsets, Boaler writes:

Interestingly, these changes came about because the teachers changed their ideas about who they were, and let go of myths that only some people can learn math. When they developed a growth mindset about themselves they were able to teach students with a mathematical mindset approach – sharing the important brain science and teaching math as a visual, creative subject.

The study was small, and it is not clear whether the mechanism by which the students improved was their teachers’ improved growth mindset, or the benefit of better materials and instruction. Also, it would be remarkable if a three-year course did not have an effect.

Nonetheless, the results are promising. Boaler said one of her favorite moments came when a principal from one of the schools in the study told her that his teachers used to rush through math time to get through it quickly. Now they sit around into the evening discussing cool visual math problems. Kayla, a teacher, has this to say, according to the study: “I thought it was going to be great for the kids, I never expected it to change me, that’s been my greatest revelation in all of it.”

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