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Archive for the ‘Memorization’ 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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With the release of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) on the horizon,  the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Education Office has stoked-up the “Math Wars” with a new study. While the October 2016 report examines a number of key questions related to teaching Mathematics, OECD Education chose to highlight its findings on “memorization,” presumably to dispel perceptions about “classroom drill” and its use in various countries.

mathsubtractionboardThe OECD, which administers the PISA assessments every three years to 15-year-olds from around the globe, periodically publishes reports looking at slices of the data. It’s most October 2016 report,  Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers and How PISA Can Help Answer Them, based upon the most recent 2012 results, tends to zero-in on “memorization” and attempts to show that high-performing territories, like Shanghai-China, Korea, and Chinese-Taipei, rely less on memory work than lower-performing places like Ireland, the UK, and Australia.

American Mathematics educator Jo Boaler, renowned for “Creative Math,” jumped upon the PISA Study to buttress her case  against “memorization” in elementary classrooms. In a highly contentious November 2016 Scientific American article, Boaler and co-author Pablo Zoido, contended that PISA findings confirmed that “memorizers turned out to be the lowest achievers, and countries with high numbers of them—the U.S. was in the top third—also had the highest proportion of teens doing poorly on the PISA math assessment.” Students who relied on memorization, they further argued, were “approximately half a year behind students who used relational and self-monitoring strategies” such as those in Japan and France. 

Australian education researcher Greg Ashman took a closer look at the PISA Study and called into question such hasty interpretations of the findings.  Figure 1.2: How teachers teach and students learn caught his eye and he went to work interrogating the survey responses on “memorization” and the axes used to present the data.  The PISA analysis, he discovered, also did not include an assessment of how teaching methods might be correlated with PISA scores in Mathematics.  Manitoba Mathematics professor Robert Craigen spotted a giant hole in the PISA analysis and noted that the “memorization” data related to “at-home strategies of students” not their instructional experiences and may wel;l indicate that students who are improperly instructed in class resort to memorization on their own.

mathpisateacherdirectedgraphWhat would it look like, Ashman wondered, if the PISA report had plotted how students performed in relation to the preferred methods used on the continuum from “more student-oriented instruction” to “more teacher-directed instruction.” Breaking down all the data, he generated a new graph that actually showed how teaching method correlated with higher math performance and found a “positive correlation” between teacher-directed instruction and higher Math scores. “Correlations,” he duly noted, “do not necessarily imply causal relationships but clearly a higher ratio of teacher-directed activity to student orientation.”

Jumping on the latest research to seek justification for her own “meta-beliefs” are normal practice for Boaler and her “Discovery Math” education disciples. After junking, once again, the ‘strawmen’ of traditional Mathematics — “rote memorization” and “drill,” Boaler and Zoido wax philosophical and poetic: “If American classrooms begin to present the subject as one of open, visual, creative inquiry, accompanied by growth-mindset messages, more students will engage with math’s real beauty. PISA scores would rise, and, more important, our society could better tap the unlimited mathematical potential of our children.” That’s definitely stretching the evidence far beyond the breaking point.

The “Math Wars” do generate what University of Virginia psychologist Daniel T. Willingham has aptly described as “a fair amount of caricature.” The recent Boaler-Zoido Scientific American article is a prime example of that tendency. Most serious scholars of cognition tend to support the common ground position that learning mathematics requires three distinct types of knowledge: factual, procedural and conceptual. “Factual knowledge,” Willingham points out, “includes having already in memory the answers to a small set of problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.” While some students can learn Mathematics through invented strategies, it cannot be relied upon for all children. On the other hand, knowledge of procedures is no guarantee of conceptual understanding, particularly when it comes to complexites such as dividing fractions. It’s clear to most sensible observers that knowing math facts, procedures and concepts is  what counts when it comes to mastering mathematics.

mathtimestableimageSimply ignoring research that contradicts your ‘meta-beliefs’ is common on the Math Education battlefield. Recent academic research on “memorization” that contradicts Boaler and her entourage, is simply ignored, even that emanating from her own university. Two years ago, Shaozheng Qin and Vinod Menon of Stanford University Medical School led a team that provided scientifically-validated evidence that “rote memorization” plays a critical role in building capacity to solve complex calculations.

Based upon a clinical study of 68 children, aged 7 to 9, studied over the course of one year, their 2014 Nature Neuroscience study, Qin, Menon et al. found that memorizing the answers to simple math problems, such as basic addition or multiplication, forms a key step in a child’s cognitive development, helping bridge the gap between counting on fingers and tackling more complex calculations. Memorizing the basics, they concluded, is the gateway to activating the “hippocampus,” a key brain structure for memory, which gradually expands in “overlapping waves” to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math.

The whole debate over memorization is suspect because of the imprecision in the use of the term. Practice, drilling, and memorization are not the same, even though they get conflated in Jo Boaler’s work and in much of the current Mathematics Education literature. Back in July 2012, D.T. Willingham made this crucial point and provided some valuable points of distinction. “Practice,” as defined by Anders Ericsson, involves performing tasks and feedback on that performance, executed for the purpose of improvement. “Drilling’ connotes repetition for the purpose of achieving automaticity, which – at its worst, amounts to mindless repetition or parroting. “Memorization,” on the other hand, relates to the goal of something ending up in long-term memory with ready access, but does not imply using any particular method to achieve that goal.

Memorization has become a dirty word in teaching and learning laden with so much baggage to the point where it conjures up mental pictures of “drill and kill” in the classroom. The 2016 PISA Study appears to perpetuate such stereotyping and, worst of all, completely misses the “positive correlation” between teacher-directed or explicit instruction and better performance in mathematics.

Why does the PISA Study tend to associate memorization in home-study settings with the drudgery of drill in the classroom?  To what extent does the PISA Study on Mathematics Teaching support the claims made by Jo Boaler and her ‘Discovery Math’ advocates? When it comes to assessing the most effective teaching methods, why did the PISA researchers essentially take a pass? 

 

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