Stanford online course for teachers, parents: Helping students to love math

Already some 20,000 people have enrolled in a free online class, beginning July 15, that offers a new approach to engaging students in mathematics.

The 18 freshmen in Professor Jo Boaler's seminar had demonstrated the academic promise needed to gain admission to Stanford, so it was striking that they shared a similar fear: mathematics.

"I subconsciously thought either you were or you weren't good at math," said one student, Chloe Colberg, echoing the views of many in the class. Indeed, that notion prevails in schools across the nation, and Boaler, a professor of education, has made it her mission to change that attitude.

Lisa F. Young / ShutterstockStudent working math problem at whiteboard with adult looking on.

Professor Jo Boaler's new online course provides teachers and parents with a different way to teach mathematics, an approach that her research has shown helps students to overcome their fear of the subject while also improving their academic performance.

The seminar that she offered last fall emphasized that math demands creativity, collaboration and discussion more than memorization, drills and just hurrying to get the right answers. According to Boaler, the way math is traditionally taught reinforces the idea that it's an innate talent.

"Coming into this class, I realized, oh, OK, that had been the mindset I had for my whole life," Colberg said. "This class allowed me to see that's not really how it is."

She and her classmates said that they finished the course last year with a new appreciation of math.

Such dramatic transformations spurred Boaler to look for a new way to reach more people with her lessons. The result is a free online course, How to Learn Math, for K-12 teachers and parents that aims to help them improve students' engagement with math, as well as help teachers prepare to implement the new Common Core standards. The course covers topics such as "Knocking Down Myths About Math," "Mistakes, Challenges and Persistence" and "Appreciating Algebra."

It will be offered, beginning July 15, through the university's new open-source platform, OpenEdX. Already more than 20,000 people have enrolled. A course listing on the Stanford Online website provides further detail about the lessons and how to register. Boaler will also offer a version of the course designed especially for students from ages around 10 to adult in the 2013-14 school year.

Boaler has devoted her career to studying math teaching and learning why math evokes such strong negative feelings among so many. One survey of adults found that four out of 10 hated math in school, twice as many as any other subject. Her research presents evidence that an approach to teaching math that includes problem solving, mathematical discussions and the use of real-life examples can not only make students more enthusiastic about the subject but also improve their performance.

Emma DugganJo Boaler portrait

Education Professor Jo Boaler

Boaler said that the other important strand in her work is the mindsets students come to math with – and the ever-present myth that only some students can be good at math. She has presented her ideas and findings in peer-reviewed journals as well as in a book for a general audience, What's Math Got to Do With It? How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject.

"Math teaching is often too procedural," Boaler said. "There's a lot of drill and practice.

"I want students to understand the importance of conceptual thinking in math. In this class, for instance, when we work on number problems, we'll look at how they can be solved in many ways, not just one. And we'll explore how to represent and understand them visually."

In Boaler's approach, a teacher could ask a class of students how they can solve the problem 18 times 5, without pen and paper. The teacher then collects the different methods and compares them. There are several different ways of solving the problem, including multiplying 20 x 5 and subtracting 2 x 5; multiplying 18 x 10 and halving the answer; or adding 8 x 5 and 10 x 5 – all ways to reach 90.

The course will feature interviews with successful users of math in different, interesting jobs – a filmmaker and an inventor of self-driving cars – to demonstrate the importance of conceptual math and the types of mathematical relationships that may benefit students.

It will also include an interview with Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, whose research showing the impact of having a "growth mindset – a belief that math is learned, not an innate talent – underlies Boaler's approach to teaching math.

Boaler said that her approach encourages students to think of themselves as capable of math, and to see math as an interesting, visual subject that is all around them. Her research has shown that when students approach math in these ways they enjoy their learning and achieve at higher levels.

The course consists of eight sessions of one to two hours. About 15 to 20 minutes of each session features video of Boaler introducing ideas; the rest of the time involves exercises and other activities that engage participants. In addition, the class promotes interactivity through an online forum where students can discuss the lessons with each other.

Participants can also engage in a live video session with Boaler where she will answer questions that course participants submit.

"Teachers at many schools are taking it together and planning to discuss and do all the activities in groups," Boaler said.

The new course will be one of the first to debut on OpenEdX, which replaces Stanford's previous online learning platform, Class2Go.

In April, Stanford and edX, the nonprofit online learning enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT, announced they would collaborate on future development of the edX online platform.

Boaler's course is particularly timely, given that 45 states, including California, are adopting the Common Core, which sets higher standards for K-12 students' mastery of math and reading. The math standards call for better conceptual understanding and fluency in problem solving.

"Many districts are really worried about how unprepared their math teachers are for the Common Core," said Boaler. "The key is for teachers to learn to teach the concepts at the heart of mathematics and to help learners understand they are all capable of high-level math."

Jonathan Rabinovitz is the director of communications at the Graduate School of Education.

Jo Boaler, Graduate School of Education: (650) 723-4076,

Jonathan Rabinovitz, Graduate School of Education: (650) 724-9440,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,