Podcast: Jo Boaler On the Limitless Mind and Learning Math That Matters

Growing up in Birmingham England, Jo Boaler had good and bad mathematics learning experiences, both shaped her views and propelled her to become the most influential math educator in the world.

Boaler taught math (or maths, as they’d say in the UK) in a diverse urban London secondary school after taking a degree from Liverpool. Her first assignment in the tracked school was to teach 14-year-olds in the bottom track. Her first question to the underperformers was “Why bother?” The empathy research won her some support from the kids.

She made the case against tracking to her colleagues and, given a shared commitment to equity and diversity, they detracked the school and taught in heterogeneous groups. The win emboldened her to continue searching for math leadership opportunities.

Boaler’s dissertation at King’s College compared the traditional lecture approach to active learning strategies. She followed students at project-based schools and traditional schools for three years observing lessons and interviewing teachers. While students in the project-based schools sometimes appeared off task, they scored well on exams.

After her award-winning dissertation, Boaler was recruited to Stanford where, in 2000, she won a Presidential Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation.  It funded a similar longitudinal study of math learning approaches. Both studies found that students who were actively engaged in learning using problem-solving and reasoning achieved at higher levels and enjoyed math more than those who engaged passively.

Boaler summarized the lessons in the first math MOOC, How to Learn Math, in 2013. More than 30,000 math educators signed on to the Udacity course. Participants asked for more, so Boaler and colleagues launched YouCubed, a website that provides math education resources to teachers, students, and parents. The goal is “to inspire, educate and empower teachers of mathematics, transforming the latest research on math learning into accessible and practical forms.”

Limitless Learning

Boaler’s new book shares the benefit of a growth mindset with a general audience. Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead and Live without Barriers is full of inspirational stories that encourage learners and leaders to embrace the struggle.

“Our best learning takes place when we struggle with the mathematics,” said Dr. Boaler. Neuroscience shows that it is better to struggle and make mistakes than get the correct answer.

Boaler teaches middle-grade learners in the summer and tells them “It’s difficult so you struggle– that feeling is your brain working.”

Neuroscience also makes clear that it’s important to engage with concepts in multiple ways to light up and connect different parts of the brain. This can include learning math through building and making, physical movement, visual representations, as well as problem-solving.

Boaler urges collaborative learning– sharing ideas, making conjectures and proving them. She said that a large percentage of undergraduates at Stanford don’t know how to work with others–it wasn’t part of their high school experience especially in math.

This challenging, collaborative approach helps to create what Boaler calls creative flexible thinking–the real value add in the AI-driven innovation economy where smart machines can do routine calculations.

Swap Algebra 2 for Data Science

Boaler recently teamed up with the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt in a campaign to add more data science to the high school curriculum. Their LA Times op-ed argued that Modern high school math should be about data science—not Algebra 2.

They argue that the American math sandwich of Algebra 1, Geometry, Alegra 2 hasn’t changed since the 1800s. But today, when 90% of data in the world was created in the last 2 years, the “most important maths are analyzing data.”

“The rest of the world is teaching data, but here in the US, we still teach Algebra and Geometry,” said Boaler. The widely used sequence was the historical basis for calculus, but students stop taking math after algebra 2, in large part because it is “ a horrible course.”

Data science has quickly become prominent in every field–every sector is computation. Boaler said, “Airbnb has 300 data scientists, also about understand elections,” and law, accounting, real estate.

As an example of a step in the right direction, Boaler points to the LAUSD data science course offered as an alternative to Algebra 2. “It’s had thousands of students go through it.”

She’s quick to note that Statistics is a different subject than Data Science and worth studying.

Having worked for decades to reform secondary math with limited progress, Boaler thinks this shift to an emphasis on data science might do it. She told Levitt they need to get leading professors on board, so they’re holding a meeting of leading math educators in February to discuss 21st-century math education.

For Data Science and Statistics, it’s useful to use real data, “not silly textbook problems,” said Boaler. It’s an opportunity to connect with the community.

“Unlike calculus where you have to be advanced for your age to gain access, data science is wholly different–it is collaborative, more open, and exciting for kids.”

Boaler thinks change is possible. She’s on a committee rewriting the California outcome framework. “Data Science is in Common Core, but it will be more central to the California framework,” she said.

On how to break into the master schedule, Boaler would prefer an integrated approach rather than the traditional American sequence. She appreciates that selective college’s signal that they want calculus but she’s hoping that, starting with Stanford, that it will change.

Who will teach data science? Boaler thinks that, with some professional learning, math teachers are ideally suited. She is working on a new online math class that will help. The one that UCLA offers in support of LAUSD is a model.

To learn more, check out the Data Science topic on YouCubed. And see a paper by Jo Boaler and Steven Levitt Are We Teaching the Wrong Mathematics to High School Students?

Key Takeaways:
[1:13] Dr. Boaler speaks about where she grew up and her experiences with math early on.
[2:46] After studying at the University of Liverpool, how did Dr. Boaler come to teach secondary maths in London? And was it a good experience?
[5:08] Dr. Boaler speaks about her experience earning her Ph.D. at King’s College in London.
[8:18] Why did Dr. Boaler decide to teach mathematics at Stanford University?
[9:40] In 2000, Dr. Boaler was awarded an NSF grant and had the chance to do another long study about teaching maths. Dr. Boaler shares what she learned from this experience.
[11:00] Dr. Boaler shares the key takeaways from her course, “How to learn math.”
[12:55] Dr. Boaler describes the mission of YouCubed.
[13:47] With the work they do at YouCubed, is there more uptake at the elementary level than the secondary?
[14:17] How many books has Dr. Boaler written so far?
[14:25] Dr. Boaler shares what her newest book, Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers, covers that her older books did not.
[16:52] Why supporting a growth mindset is so important, especially with learning math.
[18:11] Dr. Boaler summarizes her findings around the importance of struggle and mistakes.
[20:44] Dr. Boaler explains what she means when she says, ‘engaging with a lens of multiplicity.’
[22:08] Dr. Boaler speaks about creative, flexible thinking.
[23:32] Dr. Boaler shares her vision for collaborative learning.
[25:49] Dr. Boaler shares the backstory of her op-ed with Steven Levitt, “Modern high school math should be about data science — not Algebra 2.”
[30:21] Dr. Boaler shares some of her excitement around data science and why she believes it is so vitally important.
[33:00] Dr. Boaler addresses some of the political challenges as well as some of the talent development challenges in supporting teachers in this change.
[34:12] What goes into the master schedule now regarding math?
[35:40] How do we support the current group of math teachers with these changes?

Mentioned in This Episode:
Stanford University
Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers, by Jo Boaler
University of Chicago
Steven Levitt
Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change, by Leonard Mlodinow
“Modern high school math should be about data science — not Algebra 2,” by Jo Boaler and Steven D. Levitt
YouCubed — Data Science
Freakonomics Podcast — “America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up (Ep. 391)”
Concord Consortium
Getting Smart Podcast Ep. 238 — “Chad Dorsey on Modeling and Data Science in STEM Education”

For more see

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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