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# Math Class Doesn’t Work. Here’s the Solution

Ideas
Jo Boaler is a Stanford University professor and co-founder of youcubed.org

I love math, but I know that I’m unusual. Math anxiety is a rampant problem across the country. Researchers now know that when people with math anxiety encounter numbers, a fear center in the brain lights up — the same fear center that lights up when people see snakes or spiders. Anxiety is not limited to low-achieving students. Many of the undergraduates I teach at Stanford University, some of the most successful students in the nation, are math traumatized. In recent interviews, students have told me that learning math in school was like being on a “hamster wheel” — they felt like they were running and running, without reaching any meaningful destination. A seventh grader told me that math learning was like prison, because his mind felt “locked up.”

The problem is the performance culture in our schools, more present in math than in any other subject. Students believe that the purpose of math class is to demonstrate that they can quickly find the answers. An undergraduate recently told me that when she writes down her ideas, even when working alone, she expects someone to judge her. She’s unable to think freely because she’s afraid of writing something that isn’t “smart enough.” This kind of thought paralysis is the direct result of our emphasis on performance, which we urgently need to dial back. My research on math learners suggests that when students think they’re in class to learn — to explore ideas and think freely — they understand more and achieve at higher levels than when they think the point is to get questions right.

A few years ago I taught a summer math camp for sixth and seventh graders using open, creative, visual math tasks. The students were not judged or graded, and the teachers valued and celebrated mistakes and struggle. At the end of the camp, some students described feeling “mathematically free.” One said: “A lot of people think of school as prison — you don’t have any freedom. But you have a lot of freedom in math camp. You can run wild, you can pass ideas by each other.” For many people, the words “math” and “freedom” can’t be put in the same sentence — because they’re taught mathematics as a subject of rules, conformity and constant performance.