Archive for the ‘Educating Girls’ Category

A recent New York Times commentary by American engineering professor Barbara Oakley has, once again, stirred up much public debate focused on the critical need for “Math practice” and why current “Discovery Math” methodologies are hurting students, and especially girls. “You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making paper-mache volcanoes, “ she wrote,but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure that she has a solid foundation in math.”  Mathematics is “the language of science, engineering and technology,” Oakley reminded us. And like any language, she claimed, it is “best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice.”

That widely-circulated commentary was merely the latest in a series of academic articles, policy papers, and education blog posts to take issue with the prevailing ideology in North American Mathematics education, championed by Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University’s School of Education and her disciples.  Teaching the basics, explicit instruction, and deliberate practice are all, in Boaler’s view, examples of “bad math education” that contribute to “hating Math” among children and “Math phobia” among the populace. Her theories, promulgated in books and on the “YouCubed” education website, make the case that teaching the times tables and practicing “multiplication” are detrimental, discovering math through experimentation is vital, and making mistakes is part of learning the subject.

Boaler has emerged in recent years as the leading edu-guru in Mathematics education with a wide following, especially among elementary math teachers. Under the former Ontario Kathleen Wynne government, Boaler served as a prominent, highly visible member of the Math Knowledge Network (MKN) Advisory Council charged with advancing the well-funded Math Renewal Strategy.” Newsletters generated by the MKN as part of MRS Ontario featured inspirational passages from Jo Boaler exhorting teachers to adopt ‘fun’ strategies and to be sensitive to “student well-being.”

While Boaler was promoting her “Mathematics Mindset” theories, serious questions were being raised about the thoroughness of her research, the accuracy of her resources, and the legitimacy of her claims about what works in the Math classroom. Dr. Boaler had successfully weathered a significant challenge to her scholarly research by three Stanford mathematics professors who found fault with her “Railside School” study. Now she was facing scrutiny directed at YouCubed by cognitive science professor Yana Weinstein and New York Math teacher Michael Pershan.  Glaring errors were identified in YouCubed learning materials and the research basis for claims made in “Mistakes Grow Your Brain” seriously called into question. The underlying neuroscience research by Jason S Moser and his associates does not demonstrate the concept of “brain sparks” or that the “brain grows” from mistakes, but rather that people learn when made aware of their mistakes. 

Leading researchers and teachers associated with researchED are in the forefront of the current wave of evidence-based criticism of Boaler’s theories and contentions.  Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman, author of The Truth About Teaching (2018), was prompted by Jo Boaler’s response to the new UK math curriculum including “multiplication practice” to critically examine her claims. “Memorizing ‘times tables,’ “she told TES, was “terrible.” “I have never memorised my times tables,” she said. “I still have not memorised my times tables. It has never held me back, even though I work with maths every day.”  Then for clarification:” “It is not terrible to remember maths facts; what is terrible is sending kids away to memorise them and giving them tests on them which will set up this maths anxiety.”  

Ashman flatly rejected Boaler’s claims on the basis of the latest cognitive research. His response tapped into “cognitive load ” research and it bears repeating: “Knowing maths facts such as times tables is incredibly useful in mathematics. When we solve problems, we have to use our working memory which is extremely limited and can only cope with processing a few items at a time. If we know our tables then when can simply draw on these answers from our long term memory when required. If we do not then we have to use our limited working memory to figure them out when required, leaving less processing power for the rest of the problem and causing ‘cognitive overload’; an unpleasant feeling of frustration that is far from motivating.”

British teachers supportive of the new Math curriculum are now weighing-in and picking holes in Boaler’s theories. One outspoken Math educator, “The Quirky Teacher,” posted a detailed critique explaining why Boaler was “wrong about math facts and timed tests.” Delving deeply into the published research, she provided evidence from studies and her own experience to demonstrate that ‘learning maths facts off by heart and the use of timed tests are actually beneficial to every aspect of mathematical competency (not just procedural fluency).” “Children who don’t know their math facts end up confused,” she noted, while those who do are far more likely to become “better, and therefore more confident and happy, mathematicians.”

Next up was University of  Pennsylvania professor Paul L. Morgan, Research Director of his university’s Center for Educational Disabilities. Popular claims by Boaler and her followers that “math practice and drilling” stifle creativity and interfere with “understanding mathematical concepts” were, in his view, ill-founded. Routine practice and drilling through explicit instruction, Morgan contended in Psychology Today, would “help students do better in math, particularly those who are already struggling in elementary school.”  Based upon research into Grade 1 math achievement involving 13,000 U.S. students, his team found that, of all possible strategies, “only teacher-directed instruction consistently predicted greater first grade achievement in mathematics.”

Critiques of Jo Boaler’s theories and teaching resources spark immediate responses from the reigning Math guru and her legions of classroom teacher followers. One of her Stanford Graduate Education students, Emma Gargroetzi, a PhD candidate in education equity studies and curator of Soulscrutiny Blog, rallied to her defense following Barbara Oakley’s New York Times piece.  It did so by citing most of the “Discovery Math” research produced by Boaler and her research associates. She sounded stunned when Oakley used the space as an opportunity to present conflicting research and to further her graduate education.

Some of the impassioned response is actually sparked by Boaler’s own social media exhortations. In the wake of the firestorm, Boaler posted this rather revealing tweet: “If you are not getting pushback, you are probably not being disruptive enough.” It was vintage Boaler — a Mathematics educator whose favourite slogan is “Viva la Revolution.”  In the case of Canadian education, it is really more about defending the status quo against a new generation of more ‘research-informed’ teachers and parents.

Far too much Canadian public discourse on Mathematics curriculum and teaching simply perpetuates the competing stereotypes and narratives. Continued resistance to John Mighton and his JUMP Math program is indicative of the continuing influence wielded by Boaler and her camp. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Government is out to restore “Math fundamentals” and determined to break the curriculum gridlock.  The recent debate over Ontario Math education reform on Steve Paikin’s TVOntario program The Agenda featured the usual competing claims, covered familiar ground, and suggested that evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived in Canada.

What explains Professor Jo Boaler’s success in promoting her Math theories and influencing Math curriculum renewal over the past decade? How much of it is related to YouCubed teaching resources and the alignment with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ framework? Do Boaler’s theories on Math teaching work in the classroom? What impact, if any, have such approaches had on the decline of Math achievement in Ontario and elsewhere?  When will the latest research on cognitive learning find its way to Canada and begin to inform curriculum reform?




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“She’s had a ball collecting tiaras and applying fake eyelashes. But six-year old Eden Wood is ready to embrace new challenges—like promoting her own showgirl action figure.” So wrote William Lee Adams in a recent TIME NewsFeed story read around the world. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/07/14/eden-wood-six-year-old-beauty-queen-retires-from-pageant-circuit/

The winner of more than 300 beauty pageant titles, Eden Wood shot to national prominence on the hit TLC television series Toddlers & Tiaras, which follows the nation’s tiniest pageant contestants through a haze of spray tans and rhinestones. Speaking to Good Morning America on July 13, 2011, Eden’s mother-manager Mickie Wood said that putting down the crown and scepter will give Eden time to explore other ventures. As she says: “I think she’s following in the footsteps of some pretty big people who have done pageants, like Oprah Winfrey.”

But unlike Oprah—who won Miss Black Tennessee at the age of 18—Eden is building an empire without knowing how to write or do math calculations. Her range of merchandise already includes a rather mature-looking Eden showgirl action figure, the “Eden Wood Princess Canopy Bed Collection” and a memoir entitled “From Cradle to Crown” (available for just $15 plus shipping and handling on Eden’s official web site).

Watching the TV series “Toddlers & Tiaras” is enough to make your stomach churn. http://tlc.discovery.com/videos/toddlers-tiaras-i-want-the-crown.html Today, as North American parents age themselves down with lotions and potions and childish fashion, according to Hannah Sung in The Globe and Mail, ” we also age our children up.” Witness those children’s beauty pageants, the likes of which are the topic of many provocative documentaries and the basis for reality television show Toddlers & Tiaras. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/fashion-and-beauty/hannah-sung/all-mixed-up-why-are-we-dressing-like-kids/article1930289/

In journalist Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, an examination of “girlie-girl” culture, Orenstein states that, “the identical midriff-baring crop top is sold to 8-year-olds, 18-year-olds and 48-year-olds.” She cites the rise in appearance-altering surgery for American children under the age of 18 (in 2008, it was almost twice as many as a decade earlier) and the 12,000 Botox injections administered in 2009 to children ages 13 to 19 and concludes that in the end, “[it] means girls are now simultaneously getting older younger and staying younger older.”

Critics of Toddlers & Tiaras find the TLC cable program to be “the most disgusting show on television.” http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfmoms/detail?entry_id=43981 It has spawned “Cancel Toddlers & Tiaras” Facebook pages and sparked protests over the past three years, all to no avail. Some 5,000 Australians signed petitions in a failed attempt to bar Eden Wood from entering their country in late July 2011. Child psychologist Collett Smart went head-to-head with Mickie Wood on a current affairs show, Today Tonightt, but the six-year-old’s mother was undeterred.

The TV show continues to air despite the concerted efforts of parent groups to raise public awareness about the sexualization of girls. According to some reports, over 100,00 American children partiipate in these girls beauty pageants each year. Yet concerned parents are beginning to understand the emotional, psychological, and physical harm a young girl is exposed to when she is sexualized. As the 2007 American Psychological Association’s task force report showed us, early sexualization can lead to self-esteem issues, depression, eating disorders, and early promiscuity.

Women’s Rights advocacy groups are outraged by the show. “Toddlers & Tiaras is a petri dish of sexualization,” Care 2 declared. “Little girls are taught, often times forced by their domineering mothers, to act coquettishly, learn suggestive dance routines, wear sexualized costumes and bathing suits, endure hours of hair and make-up, and are even put on restrictive diets in order to lose weight for competition. This is perverse. While TLC continues to air “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the network becomes an agent of this sexualization.” http://www.care2.com/causes/profiting-from-sexualized-children-an-open-letter-to-toddlers-tiaras.html#ixzz1TR7HJtBi

The TLC cable TV show “Toddlers & Tiaras” has stirred up quite a controversy and that raging debate begs a few critical questions. Should we be taking shows like “Toddlers & Tiaras” seriously? Who in their right mind would be influenced by such trashy television, except the foolish and impressionable? Will the show set back the cause of advancing womanhood or encourage more hyperparenting? And why do networks like TLC keep renewing such shows?

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