Mathematical Mindsets: The Highlights {Part 2}

This book I would say has changed my thoughts on math, teaching, and teaching math more than any other I've read in my seven year career. I will recommend it and link it forever. I will have to post my highlighted notes from it in several posts because no one would ever scroll through all of it otherwise! There is just so much to process and that I will need to read over and over again- so many opportunities for growth and change!

It's only $10.71 for the paperback and $7.99 for the Kindle version. You NEED this book. But until you get your own, this should be enough to make you want more.


Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching
Jo Boaler

See Part 1 {here}

Chapter 3: The Creativity and Beauty in Mathematics

But mathematics, real mathematics, is a subject full of uncertainty; it is about explorations, conjectures, and interpretations, not definitive answers.

But Hersh points out that it is the questions that drive mathematics. Solving problems and making up new ones is the essence of mathematical life.

Numerous research studies (Silver, 1994) have shown that when students are given opportunities to pose mathematics problems, to consider a situation and think of a mathematics question to ask of it—which is the essence of real mathematics—they become more deeply engaged and perform at higher levels.

What employers need, he argues, is people who can ask good questions, set up models, analyze results, and interpret mathematical answers. It used to be that employers needed people to calculate; they no longer need this. What they need is people to think and reason.

Parents often do not see the need for something that is at the heart of mathematics: the discipline. Many parents have asked me: What is the point of my child explaining their work if they can get the answer right? My answer is always the same: Explaining your work is what, in mathematics, we call reasoning, and reasoning is central to the discipline of mathematics.

Mathematics is a very social subject, as proof comes about when mathematicians can convince other mathematicians of logical connections.

Group and whole class discussions are really important. Not only are they the greatest aid to understanding—as students rarely understand ideas without talking through them—and not only do they enliven the subject and engage students, but they teach students to reason and to critique each other's reasoning, both of which are central in today's high-tech workplaces.

We also want students reasoning in mathematics classrooms because the act of reasoning through a problem and considering another person's reasoning is interesting for students. Students and adults are much more engaged when they are given open math problems and allowed to come up with methods and pathways than if they are working on problems that require a calculation and answer.

What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn't really relevant.

The powerful thinkers are those who make connections, think logically, and use space, data, and numbers creatively.

Chapter 4: Creating Mathematical Mindsets: The Importance of Flexibility with Numbers

The best and most important start we can give our students is to encourage them to play with numbers and shapes, thinking about what patterns and ideas they can see.

Successful math users have an approach to math, as well as mathematical understanding, that sets them apart from less successful users. They approach math with the desire to understand it and to think about it, and with the confidence that they can make sense of it. Successful math users search for patterns and relationships and think about connections. They approach math with a mathematical mindset , knowing that math is a subject of growth and their role is to learn and think about new ideas. We need to instill this mathematical mindset in students from their first experiences of math.

When students see math as a broad landscape of unexplored puzzles in which they can wander around, asking questions and thinking about relationships, they understand that their role is thinking, sense making, and growing.

Instead of approaching numbers with flexibility and number sense, they seemed to cling to formal procedures they had learned, using them very precisely, not abandoning them even when it made sense to do so. The low achievers did not know less , they just did not use numbers flexibly—probably because they had been set on the wrong pathway, from an early age, of trying to memorize methods and number facts instead of interacting with numbers flexibly (Boaler, 2015a). The researchers pointed out something else important—the mathematics the low achievers were using was a harder mathematics. It is much easier to subtract 5 from 20 than to start at 21 and count down 16 numbers.

Notably, the brain can only compress concepts; it cannot compress rules and methods. Therefore students who do not engage in conceptual thinking and instead approach mathematics as a list of rules to remember are not engaging in the critical process of compression, so their brain is unable to organize and file away ideas; instead, it struggles to hold onto long lists of methods and rules. This is why it is so important to help students approach mathematics conceptually at all times.

The left side of the brain handles factual and technical information; the right side brain handles visual and spatial information. Researchers have found that mathematics learning and performance are optimized when the two sides of the brain are communicating (Park & Brannon, 2013).

The implications of this finding are extremely important for mathematics learning, as they tell us that learning the formal abstract mathematics that makes up a lot of the school curriculum is enhanced when students are using visual and intuitive mathematical thinking.

The antithesis of this approach is a focus on rote memorization and speed. The more we emphasize memorization to students, the less willing they become to think about numbers and their relations and to use and develop number sense.

The hippocampus, like other brain regions, is not fixed and can grow at any time, as illustrated by the London Black Cab studies (Woollett & Maguire, 2011), but it will always be the case that some students are faster or slower when memorizing, and this has nothing to do with mathematics potential. 

All subjects require the memorization of some facts, but mathematics is the only subject in which teachers believe they should be tested under timed conditions. Why do we treat mathematics in this way? We have the research evidence that shows students can learn math facts much more powerfully with engaging activities; now is the time to use this evidence and liberate students from mathematics fear.

It is important to revisit mathematical ideas, but the “practice” of methods over and over again is unhelpful. When you learn a new idea in mathematics, it is helpful to reinforce that idea, and the best way to do this is by using it in different ways. We do students a great disservice when we pull out the most simple version of an idea and give students 40 questions that repeat it. Worksheets that repeat the same idea over and over turn students away from math, are unnecessary, and do not prepare them to use the idea in different situations.

First, practicing isolating methods induces boredom in students; many students simply turn off when they think their role is to passively accept a method (Boaler & Greeno, 2000) and repeat it over and over again.

Second, most practice examples give the most simplified and disconnected version of the method to be practiced, giving students no sense of when or how they might use the method.

When textbooks introduce only the simplest version of an idea, students are denied the opportunity to learn what the idea really is.

When learning a definition, it is helpful to offer different examples—some of which barely meet the definition and some of which do not meet it at all—instead of perfect examples each time.

Students are given uncomplicated situations that require the simple use of a procedure (or often, no situation at all). They learn the method, but when they are given realistic mathematics problems or when they need to use math in the world, they are unable to use the methods (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). Real problems often require the choice and adaptation of methods that students have often never learned to use or even think about.

One significant problem the students from the traditional school faced in the national examination—a set of procedural questions—was that they did not know which method to choose to answer questions. They had practiced methods over and over but had never been asked to consider a situation and choose a method.

It is also part of the reason that students do not develop mathematical mindsets; they do not see their role as thinking and sense making; rather, they see it as taking methods and repeating them. Students are led to think there is no place for thinking in math class.

In a second study, conducted in the United States, we asked students in a similar practice model of math teaching what their role was in the math classroom (Boaler & Staples, 2005). A stunning 97% of students said the same thing: their role was to “pay careful attention.” This passive act of watching—not thinking, reasoning, or sense making—does not lead to understanding or the development of a mathematical mindset.

Large research studies have shown that the presence or absence of homework has minimal or no effects on achievement (Challenge Success, 2012) and that homework leads to significant inequities.

Research also shows that the only time homework is effective is when students are given a worthwhile learning experience, not worksheets of practice problems, and when homework is seen not as a norm but as an occasional opportunity to offer a meaningful task.

Two innovative teachers I work with in Vista Unified School District, Yekaterina Milvidskaia and Tiana Tebelman, developed a set of homework reflection questions that they choose from each day to help their students process and understand the mathematics they have met that day at a deeper level. They typically assign one reflection question for students to respond to each night and one to five mathematical questions to work on (depending on the complexity of the problems).

Questions that ask students to think about errors or confusions are particularly helpful in encouraging students' self-reflection, and they will often result in the students' understanding the mathematics for the first time.

Number talks are the best pedagogical method I know for developing number sense and helping students see the flexible and conceptual nature of math.

A growth mindset is important, but for this to inspire students to high levels of mathematics learning, they also need a mathematics mindset. We need students to have growth beliefs about themselves and accompany these with growth beliefs about the nature of mathematics and their role within it.

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