How to Learn Math – Jo Boaler Course Begins

Boaler – Session 01 – 1.1 – Math Perception Concept Map – DEABREU

I’ve just been able to start the Jo Boaler course – getting married this summer is exciting and means I’m not going to be able to give this course the attention I would like. On the other hand, I’m getting married this summer to a truly wonderful woman who I can’t be thankful enough for. 🙂

The course has started out great. Lots of data has been shared already about perceptions of mathematics and the journey people have taken with the subject. And it’s just beginning.

In session 1.1, Boaler asks students to make a concept map of the comments made by people interviewed about their experiences with mathematics. Here is that concept map.

Boaler - Session 01 - Math Perception - DEABREU


Groupwork on the Ground and in the Sky

Today was the first day of a five-day workshop with Karen O’Connell and Jess Griffin called Designing Effective Groupwork in Mathematics. As I’ve spent a year doing my M.Ed in cerebral mode, it was refreshing to talk with teachers about the nuts and bolts of how this might look in a classroom – the practical implementation of it all. I wanted to share here some of my initial take-aways and questions I still have.

I’m also planning to use this space to share my thoughts as my group and I move through the design of a groupworthy task. Watch this space! Your comments and feedback and questions are totally appreciated during this time as they always are!

Setting and Reactions

Karen and Jess have both been complex instruction (CI) practioners for a number of years and have a tremendous amount of experience to offer. In our opening activity, Jess led us through an origami box making task, with us in the role of students in groups of 4. The tables were cleared (KEY move), the task was introduced, roles (two of the many descriptions of roles: way one and way two) were introduced and explained (groupings were randomly assigned by the teachers), and a list of the abilities needed to complete the task successfully was presented. This was a key moment which I had been reading about – the first of two CI treatments called the multiple abilities treatment –  but seeing it in action stated with conviction while playing the role of student really hit home for me:

“Take a look at this list of abilities. There are quite a number of them that are needed to do this task. What are you bringing to your table? No one has all of these abilities, but each of you has at least one of them to offer.”

While doing the task, I immediately found myself with a role (resource monitor – and I love ticking lists and asking questions!), and ways to contribute to the task. I also found myself earnestly supporting others where I could, or being more verbal about my appreciation of other’s work.

As we were all doing the activity, Karen and Jess circulated, encouraging us to continue using “because” statements and asking good questions – like a coach, pointing out when a student is on the right track – while encouraging the group to recognize when a member was struggling with an idea or needed a voice. Yes, they were helping to move the math along, but they were also helping to move the talk along – talk which thereby facilitated the math moving along. This is the second of two CI treatments called assigning competence. Also incredibly key.

The task culminated in our making a “stand-alone” 1 page demonstration of our strategy and our prediction (for what the volume of a box made from a 20-inch sided square piece of paper might be given the four other boxes we had made, measured and analyzed). This was interesting – we couldn’t tell people about it. When showed to the class, no comments were allowed. Our paper explanations had to “stand alone” – and be understood just as they were. What a simple yet powerful idea as a way of presenting finished mathematics products to the class.


I already wrote about a number of “take-aways” throughout the “play-by-play” of the task, above. Here are some more.

There are some incredibly simple tweaks that Karen and Jess made to the task to encourage us to interact. First, there were four different sized pieces of paper (ergo, we needed to make 4 boxes), but only two task sheets and not enough cm cubes and beans to each have a sufficient supply for estimation. Thus we needed to share these latter two resources. The simple act of giving each student a task sheet or enough cubes for each student to work with might have kept us from talking until later in the task. In addition, the folding instructions (to move paper–>box) were naturally tough for some to follow, resulting in many group members needing help with others offering it.

One of our group members, Cameron, pointed out that the resource manager’s job had one crucial addition – to ask the teacher questions. Huge. Other group members were dependent on them as the way to communicate their questions to the teacher, thus the resource manager remained important throughout the duration of the task. Not including this has a student get resources, then (possibly) back right out of the task – “that’s it! Job done!” In addition, it implied that the teacher was just one of the many resources available in the room. Not the resource, but just one of them. A powerful implication. Instead of an “ask someone at your table then ask the teacher” rule, which could imply “don’t bother me” or “the teacher might be more useful (or more important) than the students,” we have a strong subtle implication of the equalized value of all in the room. Epic.

What strikes home most powerfully after today, however, is the self-similarity that is necessary for this kind of teaching to really be successful. We have all heard and likely agree that teachers must model for students what they want them to learn, yet we have all seen how teaching can sometimes be a bit lonely – whether self-imposed or not. The classroom door shuts, literally and figuratively. However, if we want our students to collaborate, must we not also collaborate? Must not our department meetings not be times for us to share things we are doing in our classrooms and get feedback? Must we not design tasks with our teaching partners to gain multiple perspectives on an activity in preparation for presenting it to students? Teaching is an incredibly creative profession, and creativity needs expression to be moulded, to evolve, to improve. (Many of you are likely already thinking the word “time!” over and over again in your heads. I recognize the practical and am indulging in a bit of optimism here 🙂 )

Questions Still Niggling

I have a TON of them, but my top 2 are:

1) How does CI look in a class with english language learners (ELLs)? CI is language (as in language of the classroom) heavy. Students are expected to talk in groups, to record findings understandably for others, to report their own learning in individual reports throughout units. How can we keep ELLs from losing status in the face of the great challenge they may appear to pose to their group members? How can they succeed and contribute?

2) CI works beautifully for exploratory tasks like the origami task. But CI practitioners readily admit we can’t do those all year long. How does CI look for more abstract and calculation based concepts like algebra, logic, functions, and the like? How could the teaching of this look different and be more engaging?

On From Here

Our task this week is to design a groupworthy task in a group of 3-5 people on a math topic – a task that we will then “micro-teach” during a 20 minute session. Fitting, especially considering my comments about self-similarity. As Lotan (2003) says: the creation of a groupworthy task is itself a groupworthy task. My group is pumped and ready for action! We have challenged ourselves to come up with a groupworthy way of involving students in learning algebra concepts connected with completing the square. Wish us luck!

Resources from Today

The book we are reading for this course is Smarter Together: Collaboration and Equity in the Elementary Math Classroom. Written by practitioners and researchers of CI, it’s already reaping great rewards in our explorations.

A colleague, Kate, suggested we look at Lab Gear, a manipulative designed for teaching algebra, during our lesson design. Have a look at Henri Piccioto’s site (he’s the creator) for a summary of what it can do and some free resources for how it can change teaching.

See the Lotan (2003) article that we read today – a short and sweet summary of “look-fors” when designing (or modifying old tasks/questions to make) groupworthy tasks.


Math and Place-Based Education

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

Place-based education (PBE) is based on the fundamental idea that places are pedagogical – they teach us about the world and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. It began with community education and community-as-classroom – the idea that students could learn by paying closer attention to their community and doing work within it. The idea has since expanded to investigate the learning that happens in field-trips or long-term projects outside of the classroom, to examine the pedagogy of places of all sizes and locations, and to explore the meanings that different people attach to place. One can argue, that – to an extent – there is an activism component against the current state of the education system, which – in most cases – assumes that the school (and the classroom) is the place where learning occurs.

For Dr. David Gruenewald (2003) – who now goes by the name David Greenwood – place-based education (PBE) is in large part a response to standards, testing, and accountability, the threefold education reform movement of the last two to three decades (though grounded in some much older ideologies). As mathematics is the gatekeeper discipline to many careers and university programs – whether with a mathematics component or not – it is a discipline that, it could be argued, is the target of PBE’s response. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) expressed his skepticism about the possibilities of developing place-conscious mathematics. However, is mathematics – the very tool incorrectly used to assess students, and thus misunderstood by so many – the ideal vehicle to drive PBE’s response to misguided education reform?

Classroom, by evmaiden

Classroom, by evmaiden

Much has been written about cultural border-crossing in science education – challenges that students come to when negotiating between their life-world and the culture of the discipline of science (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Jegede, 1995). Similar arguments have been made by Boaler (1993, 1998) and Schoenfeld (1989) that a similar struggle, manifesting in difficulties in knowledge transference, goes on in mathematics education. PBE acknowledges the divide between students’ life world, and the culture of school and mathematics, and Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) cites it as a result of the disconnected place – the school and the classroom – that students are meant to learn in each day. So, PBE can contribute to mathematics education, and mathematics can contribute to the activist elements of PBE. I disagree with Gruenewald’s challenge that place-conscious math can’t exist.  Gruenewald/Greenwood (2003) himself says, “people make places and places make people” (p. 621). PBE embraces our agency to leverage the power of place in our lives and learning just as it acknowledges the influence that place has over our identity. While learning must take place in a physical classroom in most schools, with all the aspects of schools that this entails (timed periods, separate subjects, etc.), it does not mean that we should give up trying to transcend the barriers and isolation that schools can create. In the interview, Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) points out that in the process of “aligning” curriculum and standards, curriculum is treated as a means to an end (to meet the standards) and is forever altered. How do we mediate the two? If we can’t, what changes can we make to enable schools to connect students better with the outside world?

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

One could argue that the infusion of technology in our classrooms further removes us from our world – because technology forces us to perceive our world through a screen and interact with it through a machine. There are others who would argue that technology connects us – like I am connecting with you right now having made my ideas available for comment, or like many professionals and friends connect using Twitter and other social media.  In a different way, a framework like ethnomathematics is one way to enact PBE in mathematics – by inviting students to be aware of other places and cultures that surround us. Perhaps by being inspired by the mathematics embedded in others’ and our own cultural practices, students can transcend the classroom space and acquire the learning that we seek for them. Regardless of what solution is suggested, however, can we transcend place? Or does the fact that students are located in a classroom during the day completely undermine the ability to enact PBE? And, if we can transcend place – that is, if the place they are in (school and classroom) recedes from consciousness as teachers attempt to enact PBE – does this mean that we have enacted PBE successfully or failed to enact it?

I have more questions than answers about this at the moment. One of the purposes of PBE is to catalyze a dialogue about place and education, so perhaps finding “ways” to make it “work” isn’t really the point!


Gruenewald, D. (2003). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-­‐conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40, 3, 619-­‐654.

Green, C. (2005). Selecting the Clay: Theorizing place-­‐based mathematics education in the rural context (Interview with David Gruenewald). Rural Mathematics Educator. ACCLAIM.

Smith, G. (2002). Going local. Educational Leadership, September 30-­‐33.

Boaler, J. (1993) The role of contexts in the mathematics classroom: Do they make mathematics more ‘real’? For the learning of Mathematics, 13(2), 12-­‐17.

Boaler, J. (1998). Open and closed mathematics: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29, 41-­‐62.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1989). Explorations of Students’ Mathematical Beliefs and Behavior. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 20(4), 338–355.

Aikenhead, G. S., & Jegede, O. J. (1999). Cross‐cultural science education: A cognitive explanation of a cultural phenomenon. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(3), 269–287.

Jegede, O. J. (1995). Collateral Learning and the Eco-Cultural Paradigm in Science and Mathematics Education in Africa. Studies in Science Education, 25, 97–137.

Jegede, O. J., & Aikenhead, G. S. (1999). Transcending cultural borders: Implications for science teaching. Research in Science & Technological Education, 17(1), 45–66. doi:10.1080/0263514990170104