• From the Director

Response to Jo Boaler’s view of maths in UK schools

An article from our Director, Charlie Stripp

  • Published: 15/08/2014

We’ve got a lot of respect for Jo Boaler here at the NCETM, and we know large numbers of teachers here in the UK value, and benefit from, her vast experience and online modules, delivered from her university base in Stanford, California. So anything she says about maths education is worth listening to.

But, in this recent article in the Daily Telegraph, I feel she’s painted an unrepresentative picture of maths classrooms on this side of the Pond. And in so doing, she’s been mighty unfair to teachers here, particularly those in primary schools.

So, it calls for a response.

The thrust, and accompanying strapline, of her article centres on a matter of gender, specifically the treatment of girls by schools and teachers here, and my colleague Jane Imrie gave the NCETM’s reply in a letter sent to the Daily Telegraph. Here’s the text of the letter.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Jo Boaler’s article (13 August 2014), on the back of the news that her Stanford colleague Maryam Mirzakhani had become the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics, aired an important issue. At the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) we, too, would like to see more girls taking A level maths and going on to academic and other careers where maths is the central or key component.

But, sadly, she is wide of the mark in much of her analysis of what’s currently going on in English classrooms.

In particular we’d take issue with a couple of her sweeping statements.

First….’the routine advice…of primary school teachers to young girls that “maths might not be for them.” ‘ paints a depressing and crass picture. But it’s a false one. Perhaps she has heard of one such instance, but to extrapolate and suggest this message is delivered in approaching 20,000 primary schools, without quoting any evidence, is rash in the extreme, and does not in any way match our current, first hand observation and experience in English primary schools.

Even worse is the assertion that ‘In our maths classrooms today, students do not make conjectures, or learn creatively,’ twinned with a side-swipe at ‘ traditional, narrow, procedural mathematics that fills our classrooms, (and that) is particularly unattractive to women and girls.’

Again, this black and white view of mathematics teaching is both unhelpful, and unrepresentative of reality. The truth is that procedural fluency (being able to do calculations quickly and efficiently, mentally and on paper) and conceptual understanding must go hand in hand, and do go hand in hand in increasing numbers of classrooms. All our current work at the NCETM tries to help teachers help pupils make strides in both these areas in tandem. And, by the way, we see no difference here between boys and girls.

But we’re not complacent. We acknowledge that there’s plenty of room for improvement, and we’d like to see more girls stick with maths for longer, 'and the national support programmes for Core Maths and Further Maths are working alongside the NCETM to improve this.

We respect Jo Boaler and admire her work with teachers on both sides of the Atlantic. But we don’t recognise the pessimistic picture she paints here.

Jane Imrie, Deputy Director, National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics.

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