Math as a way to contrast school dropout. Stanford Prof. Jo Boaler in Italy

«I am here to tell you that what you believe about your potential has changed what you have learned, and it continues to do that. It continues to change your learning and your experiences. How many people have ever been given the idea that they are not a math person? Or that they cannot go to the next level of math and they haven’t got the brain for it?

I am here to tell you that this idea is completely wrong. It is disproven by brain science. But it is fuelled by a single myth that is out there in our society. And it is very strong and very dangerous. The myth is that there is such a thing that is a math brain. That you are born with one, or you are not. [But] research has shown us that if you believe in your unlimited potential, you will achieve a higher level in maths and in life.»

With these remarks, Prof. Jo Boaler* opened her 2016 speech at TEDxStanford, setting, once more, the baseline of her work with youcubed; this innovative method she created a decade ago aims to improve children’s maths levels by providing alternative ways to teach it and helping students overcome their fear of the subject while improving their academic performance.

The Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education was recently in Italy to train the trainers of Il Cielo Itinerante, the Italian organization that “brings the sky where usually it does not reach”. The non-profit designed six summer camps, starting this June, alongside its yearly “tour” around the country, reaching out to children living in areas with high levels of school dropout. These 5-days camps will bring the method developed in Stanford to Naples, Rome and Milan.

While she was in Europe, I had the chance to exchange some views with Prof. Boaler about the importance of STEM subjects, particularly maths, for the future of younger generations. About the need to try different approaches to teach them. And, in a broader perspective, about the challenges teachers, parents, and students face. Those considerations have become especially urgent after the big experiment that the pandemic was.

Can mathematics bridge the gender gap? As well as the gaps among students living in more or less privileged environments?

We have found, in different studies, that we are able to achieve more equitable results when mathematics is taught differently. Instead of being taught as methods and rules, if mathematics is taught conceptually, with visual and other multi-dimensional ways of approaching ideas, and students are invited to share their ways of seeing maths, and their different ways of thinking about it, then many more students are successful.

Have the disruptions created by school closures during the pandemic affected how teachers and parents see and understand the importance of alternative teaching methods?

Unfortunately, one impact of the pandemic that I saw was that teachers who were beginning to use different (more equitable and exciting) ways to teach mathematics went back to lecturing students and giving them worksheets.

At the same time, the last few years seem to have raised greater awareness that we need something different and that the inequities we see in mathematics achievement are not acceptable. This awareness is helping us train teachers in new ways, and they see a need for the different ways.

Is it the time to teach (math) to parents, and teachers – alongside children? Do we need broader involvement as societies to reach those living in underprivileged areas?

Definitely yes. When we teach mathematics differently but we have not educated parents about the different ways, there is often resistance and pushbacks, and the improvements get pushed out. We also know that teachers need time to learn new ways of teaching. We also need to change societal ways of thinking about maths.

There is a very common, widespread, and incorrect idea that some students are not born with the right kind of brain for maths. When parents have this idea, their children also develop the idea. When teachers have that idea, they pass it onto their students. If any people – parents, teachers, or students, believe that there is a “math brain”, then learning is diminished.

How did the training for trainers, that brought you to Italy, go?

The Il Cielo Itinerante workshop and the training of the trainers has been amazing. The young people have been totally open to new ways of teaching and learning; they are curious and excited. Their discussions have shown that they are noticing subtle and important details of the teaching approach, so I am very confident that they will do well with their students.

Some of them have told me how happy they are that we value mistakes and times of struggle and how they feel free because of this. I expect this training to change young people in many ways – not just in their learning ways to teach.

* Prof. Boaler has authored different books, including the bestseller Mathematical Minds and the 2019 volume “Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead and Live Without Barriers”, published in Italian with the title “Intelligenze senza limiti.”


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