Tuesday, 30 July 2013

How to Learn Math - Introduction (Session 1)

Having seen a few things floating around twitter and on the TES Mathematics community blog (http://community.tes.co.uk/tes_mathematics/b/weblog/default.aspx) I have enrolled today on Jo Boaler's 'How to Learn Math' course on Stanford University's free online platform.

All the course details are found on this site:

https://class.stanford.edu/courses/Education/EDUC115N/How_to_Learn_Math/about

Registration is really simple and you can start the course whenever you like and work through the 8 sessions at your own pace. It started on the 15th July and runs to the 27th Sep (2013). I've only just enrolled but haven't missed anything - all the course content for each session is ready to go once you've signed up.

Follow Jo Boaler on Twitter @joboaler and use the hashtag #HowToLearnMath to communicate with others on the course (there's over 25,000 people signed up to it).

I've just finished working my way through Session 1 (Introduction) and here are my thoughts so far...

The first session introduced the course and explored the problems with Mathematics teaching, perceptions about the subject and stereotypes behind the subject and its' learners. The main thing I have taken away from the session is just how much negativity there is towards our subject and how this can be combated by us teachers and the parents of our students too.
Throughout the session you are presented with a series of videos and complementing exercises to fill in/complete. These are fairly short exercises but can take longer depending on how much time you have to give to the course. I like the element of peer feedback where you are able to see others' responses and comment on them.
Personally it has made me think about how I teach Mathematics and what presumptions and generalisations I make about my students. It also made me question why so many students come into secondary school with a negative feeling towards Mathematics. Some students seem to have this perception that Mathematics is hard, they're not 'good at maths' and aren't as good as others. The session discussed the gender stereotypes in Mathematics and other cultural influences.

It got me thinking about how we 'label' some students in Mathematics, especially those 'bottom set' students who already find mathematics difficult but then get labelled as the 'bottom set' and this just helps to reinforce their beliefs. This, I feel, is one of the biggest problems with ability-setting students - the fact we attach some sort of label of ability to these students. I too am guilty of this as I can recall many times where I have, on my blog, referred to my 'bottom set' students as 'low ability'. Are they really? Perhaps, but surely by referring to them in this way I am putting a ceiling on what they are possibly capable of.
There have been lessons this year with these groups where a student may have said something negative to another student following a contribution of theirs to a class discussion. Something along the lines of 'that's wrong you idiot'. This then gets followed up by a comment from this student along the lines of 'well you're in the same set as me, you're just as stupid - we're all set 5!'

How we can move away from this 'label' the students seem to carry around with them is, I suppose, the 'big' question. One which I don't yet have an answer for, but am hoping to try and overcome with these classes.

The session also discussed intervention strategies that had been used to help overcome these stereotypes. These strategies are all psychological, which for me personally is great, what with my Psychology degree and background. The fact that girls can underperform on a test, that they have beforehand marked their gender, emphasises that there are elements of stereotyping that have been embedded in their beliefs and attitudes towards certain subjects.

Something that Craig Barton @mrbartonmaths and @tesMaths stated in his summary of session 1 is that we've all had parents at parents' evening excuse their child's perceived ability in Mathematics or progress in the subject due to them being 'poor' at maths themselves. I feel this is the starting point of students believing that they too can't be good at the subject, or that it is bound to be difficult. I don't think they'll be a student in my classes in September that doesn't have some sort of preconceived idea of their 'worth' in Mathematics. Past experiences will govern whether they are capable, or not, in Mathematics and they may have put them off altogether. Some may have high expectations on them due to always being in 'set 1' or because their parents were good at maths and so they should be too.

All of these questions/thoughts have been brought about by session 1 and the questions Jo poses in the video clips. There are loads of resources as part of the online platform too and I have the rest of Paul Lockhart's 'A Mathematician's Lament' to read (I've read the required first 5 pages) as part of the course reading.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to the rest of the sessions, which I will blog about as and when I complete each one.

I highly recommend this to any Mathematics teacher, teacher, parent or anyone that has some spare time over the Summer who has an interest in the above.

I have also just ordered Jo's book 'The Elephant in the Classroom' too to add to my Summer reading. Available from Amazon (other online book retailers are available of course) at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Elephant-Classroom-Helping-Children/dp/0285638750/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375188955&sr=8-1&keywords=the+elephant+in+the+classroom

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