How to Learn Math

In my previous post, I talked about Stanford’s MOOCs. I decided to register for Jo Boaler’s “How to Learn Math (for Students)”. There is a teacher version, but it is not free, so I thought I’d take the student version to see what I can learn.

To counteract the assertion that “some people are just better at math,” Boaler directed us to the article “Teaching the Brain to Learn”, which posits that the “distributed neuro functional systems,” which are the basis for later cognitive ability, can be shaped by the type of activities students do. It also stresses that emotions are connected to learning as well, influencing the affective filter in the brain. This is why emotionally meaningful experiences lead to students improving their cognitive abilities, while emotionally stressful situations can disrupt the learning process. Student engagement is the key to enhancing outcomes, which is why project based or discovery learning can have great results, as long as it is rigorously structured. Otherwise, the outcomes are no better than direct instruction methods.

We then were watched a series of videos. The first asked people “What do you think about Math? Why?” and then reflect on the people who didn’t like math – what turned them off? Some said they didn’t know how it related to the real, physical world or how it was applicable to their lives. Some said there were too many rules to memorize, or that it was boring and too repetitious.

Next was smashing math myths, and how the brain works. Math isn’t just in textbooks, but living, breathing math is all around us. There is no such thing as a “math person” – everyone is a math person, and everyone is born with the innate ability to do well in math. What we think of as “math people” are that way because of the experiences they have had. You can catch up to brainy people! The brain is like a muscle, the more you work it out the stronger it grows, but you have to keep increasing the “weight” which means the more you struggle with an idea, the more your brain grows.

The brain is very plastic. London taxi drivers have to learn so many streets – twenty thousand! – that their hippocampus actually grows bigger. Interestingly, once they retire and are not accessing this information any longer, the hippocampus shrinks back to its original size. A seven year old girl who had half her brain removed was able to teach the remaining half to take over many of the tasks of the missing hemisphere. In one study, students worked on a task for just a few minutes each day for 6 weeks. At the end of the study, they had changed the structure of their brains.

There is a stereotype that math is “for boys.” Unfortunately, that is reinforced by the kinds of toys that are marketed it for boys. These are the type of toys – building toys and strategy games – that help build the math part of the brain. Stereotypically “girl toys,” such as dolls, don’t do this. Always resist stereotyped thinking. Always. The ideas in the world are for everyone.

To sum up, we were asked to summarize the three main points in the lesson that we feel everyone our age should know. Mine would be:

1) The brain is plastic. It can grow based on how we work it out, and those things that we struggle with and are challenging build it more.

2) Certain activities and games, such as origami and backgammon, can help develop our math ability.

3) There aren’t “math people” – everyone is a math person. It is possible to catch up to the “brainy” people. Always resist stereotyped thinking – Always!


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