Elementary teachers who changed their perceptions about math — such as who’s good at it and why it’s useful — saw their students’ math scores rise significantly, according to a new study by a Stanford University education researcher.
The study, published in the journal Education Sciences, showed that student scores improved after teachers took an online course explaining how anyone can be good at math, math is fun and useful, and can be taught in a more positive, engaging way.
“Many elementary teachers are math-traumatized. It’s amazing how many of them were given terrible ideas about maths as children,” said Jo Boaler, co-author of the study and a professor of mathematics education at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Boaler, who’s British, uses the British term “maths” instead of the American “math.”
Boaler and her fellow researchers recruited 40 5th-grade teachers from the Central Valley to take a 12-hour online math course she and her team created. The course, “How to Learn Math for Teachers,” covers perceptions about math, how anyone — with enough practice — can develop the brain skills to understand complex math problems, and how math is used in everyday life. The course also covers basic math concepts, such as number patterns and reasoning, and offers tips for teaching those concepts.
Boaler and her team also met in person with the teachers and followed up with surveys and interviews after the course ended.
A few months after teachers completed the course, their students’ math scores were 8 points higher on the Smarter Balanced standardized state test, compared to a control group of comparable students. Girls, English learners and low-income students did especially well, according to the report.
The key, Boaler said, was changing the teachers’ own ideas about math.
“Many grew up with the message, ‘You’re not a maths person.’ But we know that how you feel about yourself can have a great impact on how well you learn,” Boaler said. Changing the way teachers felt about their own mathematical abilities led them to like the subject, which boosted their enthusiasm for teaching it, she said. Their enthusiasm spread to their students, who in turn changed their own attitudes about math and performed better on tests.
For example, in the online course, Boaler explains how the brain creates new synapses when it learns something new and that anyone, at any age, can learn new things. The brain is a flexible organ, she says, and anyone can become “smarter” by learning new things. Therefore, people who are good at math weren’t born that way — they learned it bit by bit, which anyone can do.
She also shows how speed and right answers are not always the best ways to gauge a student’s math ability. Taking time to puzzle over a math problem, or experimenting with various answers, should not be penalized — it shows a student is thinking hard and learning the logic underlying a math problem, rather than reciting rote formulas.
Boaler and her team chose 5th-grade teachers because 5th-grade students fare worse on the Smarter Balanced math test than students in any other elementary grade. In California, two-thirds of 5th-graders failed to meet the math standards on the 2017 assessments.
Boaler was particularly heartened by how quickly the students’ test scores rose, she said. She wasn’t expecting to see such dramatic changes for at least three years, as teachers became more comfortable with their new teaching styles.
“Teachers were telling us, ‘I thought this was going to be great for the kids. I never thought it’d be great for me, too,’” Boaler said. “They really changed their overview of maths. It was a personal transformation.”