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Stanford Professor: Stop With the Math Memorization

Mathematics education in the United States puts far too much emphasis on memorization, says Stanford math education professor Jo Boaler. And that ultimately leads students to both misunderstand and dislike math as a subject.

In a recent Hechinger Report commentary, Boaler wrote that "we continue to value the faster memorizers over those who think slowly, deeply, and creatively," and that this has "produced a generation of students who are procedurally competent but cannot think their way out of a box."

I followed up with Boaler over the phone about an analysis of PISA data she's been working on that found the U.S. has more "memorizers" than most other countries. The study, which should be published this summer, looked at students' answers to questions about how they view math. "Some see math as a subject they have to think hard about, problem-solve, and use their own ideas," she told me. "And other kids think math has lots of methods they have to memorize. We know kids going down that memorization path are not going to do well."

That's because the kinds of math problems students will face in their lives—and the kinds of problems many are beginning to see under the Common Core State Standards—are all about conceptual understanding, she said. 

"It's not that it's not useful to memorize things, but we do way too much of it," she said. "If kids get the idea that's what math is, we have problems. And not just with them understanding it, but with them liking it."

Boaler, who grew up in the United Kingdom, explained that she had an accident as a child that hurt her memory. "I went into math because there's nothing to memorize," she said. 

Given her childhood was during what she calls the "progressive era" for math education, Boaler was never forced to even memorize her times tables—and still does not know them all by heart to this day. "I have number sense, which we know is much more important," she explained. "I have a feel for numbers and can work them out quickly." For instance, in computing 7 x 8, she does 80 (or 8 x 10) minus 24 (or 8 x 3). 

Math Week

As part of an effort to get students excited about math, Boaler recently helped develop a series of free lessons called the "Week of Inspirational Math." Starting May 25th, teachers who register on the youcubed.org website, co-founded by Boaler and math educator Cathy Williams and run out of Stanford, will be emailed five math lessons, one for each school day that week. The lessons are inquiry-based, can be used for students in grades 3 through 9, and do not require any manipulatives or technology (so truly any math teacher can use them).

Boaler gave me an example of a task, which I promised not to disclose. But I will say this: It's a fun, number-based brain teaser that really can be scaffolded for any grade level—and one I plan to try myself. 

About 30,000 users have already registered for the lessons, and Boaler said she'd like to get as many as 100,000 teachers using them.

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