Yesterday I was in a lecture where the speaker gave each audience member a paper with three increasingly larger pyramids on it. Thinking visually, our task was to show how the pyramid was growing/changing each time. I was hesitant, because I’m really not good at math but I shaded mine. We were then to share with our neighbors. Mine were two dudes. The first one explained his thoughts. The second his. Then they asked me for mine. They pointed out two unshaded triangles and asked me why I hadn’t shaded them. I quickly colored them in and said “Oh I guess I made a mistake.” And then the two guys explained to me what I could have done. But then of course, as per always my experience in math, the teacher put up a slide and my way was one of the ways.
A couple things happened: first of all, I kind of freaked out the second I was asked to do a math-thing. I knew I would mess up before I even knew what the task was, and what kind of gender/tech researcher can’t get a math problem right? Worse, I was in a group with a dude PhD student and an older, professorial man who was stroking his beard for half the time before the math exercise. And they mansplained to me what I did (and incorrectly, too!) and from the moment I turned to them I knew they knew more than me, so I basically shut up. And why? How did I know this? I’m a product of high-performing California public schools, of course. I learned it. I learned pretty early on in my educational career that I’m not a math person.
But here was Jo Boaler, showing me how and why there’s no such thing as “not math people.” Her work examines the ways popular beliefs about mathematics, combined with and reinforced by common teaching methods function together to create a situation where tons of kids are tracked right out of math- and you know who’s mostly effected by these crazy-making beliefs and teaching methods? Girls. Kids of color.
When Dr. Boaler projected an image of those oh so common times tables worksheets, I could feel it in my body- the tightness in my fingers to grip the pencils, ready to race the clock and peek up to make sure I’d be one of the first finished to prove my smartness.
A key piece of the work on experiences of math hinges on beliefs about talent and giftedness. Yet, this kind of model works for no one- it isn’t good for the kids who don’t get into the GATE programs and who receive the message that they aren’t smart, but its even crappy for the kids who are put into the GATE programs and consistently told they’re smart, ripening the conditions for epic, crushing failure when things don’t come easily or when kids fail. What we’ve got is a situation where talent is fixed- you got it or you don’t- in which kids are very stressed and often actually traumatized through their math experiences.
When I was a kid, I was the Gifted and Talented program, and we got all kinds of special things- my favorite of which was a week long trip to an outdoor science center. Being a GATE kid was good- we were the smart ones. In sixth grade, I went to a new school where I knew no one. In the first week of school, Mr. Hoxey, my math teacher, divided the classroom into three groups. He didn’t even know me, but I got put into the “average” math group- the one that wouldn’t do algebra until ninth grade. The advanced group got to do algebra in eighth grade. I was crushed. Obviously my time pretending to be good at math was up and the hoax was over: I was just average. It only got worse over time, when math failure after math struggle after math hate convinced me again and again that I’m not a math person.
Over time, I learned to have an extremely fixed mindset about my math ability, when a creative, open, visual approach to math like the one Dr. Boaler was advocating might have changed that entirely! All of this is to say, that Dr. Boaler’s talk really resonated with me. I loved watching her weave together threads from neuroscience and pedagogy, gender and girlhood studies with STEM education. Check out her work here: https://www.youcubed.org/
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.