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Math Myths that Inhibit Learning

By: Sixth Grade Teacher Rachel Price

November 6, 2019

This fall I’ve been working my way through Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets (2015). Boaler has authored fourteen books, numerous research articles and is currently a Mathematics Education Professor at Stanford University. Her resources and philosophies about education have been very inspiring to me; they are changing the way I think about math, talk about math, and teach math. In the opening chapters of Mathematical Mindsets, Boaler outlines and dispels common myths that most of us have believed about math. She argues that these myths inhibit learning. I think many of these myths, whether we realize it or not, are ever-present in most math classrooms today. While I would urge you to read Boaler's book to learn more, here’s a brief breakdown of two of the myths and the proof against them: 

Myth 1: Being good at math means being fast.

If you’re one of the first ones done with your work, you’re a “math person”, right? While this is a familiar train of thought, it is not based in truth.

To combat this myth, Boaler points to the life and experience of Laurent Schwartz. Schwartz (1915-2002) was a French mathematician who won the Fields Medal and is often regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. In his autobiography, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, (2001) Schwartz admitted that in math class, he often felt unintelligent because he was never very fast. Schwartz came to this conclusion: “Rapidity doesn’t have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other” (Boaler, 31). 

Not convinced? In the 1930s, Jean Piaget rejected the idea that learning was about memorizing procedures. (Memorizing procedures implies that math can always be performed quickly.) Instead of memorizing procedures, Piaget proposed that true learning depends on an understanding of how ideas fit together. This understanding takes time to develop. Thinking slowly and deeply about connections should be celebrated and encouraged in math!

Myth 2: Math is all about right and wrong answers.

When students are asked what math is, they often say it is a subject in which you memorize procedures and get questions right or wrong. Math is viewed as a performance subject, but this is such a narrow take on the wide, beautiful, creative field of mathematics. Math is much more about patterns, connections and relationships. Boaler points out that, “Knowledge of mathematical patterns has helped people navigate oceans, chart missions to space, develop technology that powers cell phones and social networks, and create new scientific and medical knowledge, yet many school students believe that math is a dead subject, irrelevant to their futures” (Boaler, 23).  

I want our students to leave Rossman excited about all the doors that math can open! I want to teach math in a way that inspires curiosity, wonder, creativity, and risk-taking and combats the idea that math is just black and white, right and wrong. I hope that within our math classrooms we can dispel these myths and change the way we think and talk about math, creating lifelong critical thinkers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Jo Boaler, check out the resources below: 

www.youcubed.org 
Mathematical Mindsets (2015)
Limitless Mind (2019)

Quotes and ideas in this article are from Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets (2015).
Reference: Boaler, J. (2015). Mathematical mindsets: unleashing students potential through creative math, inspiring messages, and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints.

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