Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Book Review: The Elephant in the Classroom

elephant-cover-e1353931162827 by Elizabeth @ The Garden Window
The Elephant in the Classroom
Helping Children Learn and Love Maths
By Jo Boaler
Published in paperback by Souvenir Press, London, 2010
I have just finished reading this, and I have to say that as a parent and school governor, this is  certainly the most important book I have read in the last five years.  Professor Jo Boaler is a mathematician and an educator, and is currently the  Marie Curie Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Sussex. She has an impressive track record as a teacher and as a researcher into how children learn mathematics, how they are taught mathematics (often very badly), and why so many children sadly fail to engage with maths on any meaningful level.
I fell into that last category very neatly; maths made absolutely no sense to me at school and I failed my Maths O level dismally badly.  At a young age I was written off by my maths teacher as having no aptitude for the subject at all, yet when faced with pages of molar equations which needed to be solved in my Chemistry O level, I came out with an A grade because the algebra needed to solve them was important, fun and actually made sense - unlike the dull, virtually incomprehensible algebra I had been taught in Maths class.  I have never really understood  why this divide between theoretical and applied maths was so wide and apparently unbridgeable,  but after reading this book, I have discovered that the teaching of maths in the UK and the US has been so narrow and proscriptive that it has doomed frighteningly  large swathes of the population to unnecessary failure.
The almost universal belief that males are much better at maths and science than females has now been exploded. It is only in recent years, as maths results of male students  have deteriorated and results achieved by females have improved that any real notice has been taken of how maths is being taught in our schools; Professor Boaler presents a convincing comparison of what she has observed first hand in schools with the research outlining how traditional methods of maths teaching fare when  compared with the results and teaching presented in other countries. The disparity between the results is huge and rather frightening; she argues that it is essential that we act now in order to stop the rapid decline in maths standards and achievements  in our students and reverse the trend. There is a substantial body of research which supports her analysis of the situation and she is at pains to provide extensive resources for interested teachers to use to enhance the learning and outcomes for groups of children or for parents to use at home with their children.  She argues that maths should be taught as enjoyable problem-solving both at an individual and a group or class level rather than a solitary pursuit involving enormous amounts of learning rules in order to achieve the results needed by schools in the mandatory SATS testing of children.
I was particularly pleased to see that she makes reference to the important role that school governors can and should play in ensuring that the  maths  taught at grass-roots level in primary schools is working, and if not, what could and should be done to improve things. I would urge anyone who has an interest in education or who has children or grandchildren of school age to get a copy of this book  and see how differently maths could and should be taught. If you struggled with maths at school, you could be in for a pleasant surprise as you find that you *do* have an aptitude for maths after all !

The book can be bought directly from Souvenir Press.

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