I am so glad I discovered Jo Boaler’s work. She is inspiring me to rethink the way I teach math. For my Inquiry class, we had to pick a peer-reviewed journal article to summarize. I immediately searched for Boaler. I found one of her most famous articles, and below I share my summary of her research.
Boaler, J. (2008). Promoting ‘relational equity’ and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed-ability approach. British Educational Research Journal, 34 (2), 167-194.
Summary of Research
This study followed students placed in mixed ability collaborative groups in math and compared them with students in traditional math classes over four years. Through lesson observations and student interviews and assessments, Boaler found that the students placed in the heterogeneous collaborative groups not only outperformed the students in traditional math classes in mathematics achievement but also showed increased relational equity, treating each other with more respect and offering each other more support.
Design of study:
Quantitative and qualitative data on 700 students were collected over four years at three California high schools. Two high schools used traditional teaching methods, which incorporated 21% lecture, 15% teacher questioning, 48% individual work, and 11% group work in ability-grouped math classes. The third school used reform methods, with 4% lecture, 9% teacher questioning, 72% group work, and 9% student presentations in heterogeneously grouped math classes.
Over 600 hours of lessons at all three schools were observed and analyzed. Sixty students were interviewed every year, sampling from high and low achievers and different cultural and ethnic groups. All students were given questionnaires in the first three years of the study asking about their experiences and perceptions of math. All students were assessed for mathematics understanding, and selected focus groups were given applied mathematics assessments that were videotaped.
- Students who work in heterogeneous groups learn to take responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others in the group resulting in higher mathematics achievement for all members.
- Students who work in heterogeneous groups learn to value other people’s perspectives and respect diverse cultures and backgrounds, which has positive implications for their future participation in a global economy.
- Students who work in heterogeneous groups show improved communication and collaboration, as well as enhanced critical thinking and problem solving.
- Teachers need to conscientiously support and model group work in order for it to be successful.
Despite starting out at lower levels, students at the reform school outperformed students at the traditional school within two years. More students (41% vs. 27%) at the reform school went on to advanced math classes by the fourth year of the study. Achievement differences between ethnic groups were reduced. The students at the reform school showed increased relational equity: helping others learn, taking responsibility (59% vs. 5%), and respecting other’s viewpoints.
Teachers require training to instruct students in the practices that make group work effective. Teachers need to help groups avoid unbalanced workloads, and make collaborative norms explicit. Teachers must also act as advocates for respect and responsibility, paying attention to how students are working together and not just to the mathematical outcomes.
Implication of Study for Stakeholders:
The traditional teaching method in which teachers dispense information and individual students process it is not the most effective way to improve academic outcomes, and it does not address social justice, social and emotional learning, or citizenship goals at all. Grouping students heterogeneously by race, ethnic group, gender, and ability, and allowing them to work together to process a given topic improves outcomes in all of these areas, as well as engaging students in the development of twenty-first century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. Teachers need support and training to enact these radical changes to their teaching methods so that they are implemented effectively in their classrooms.