Jo Boaler, Ever the Victim

Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University, has just posted on her recent mistreatment at the hands of a campaign against her. The post is titled,

Crossing the Line: When Academic Disagreement becomes Harassment and Abuse  

Boaler’s post includes detailed claims that she has received abuse, rape threats and more, the truth of which there is no reason to doubt and which if true then obviously points to inexcusable and disgusting behaviour directed at Boaler. The problem is, Boaler is also playing a game. Again.

I briefly discuss Boaler’s latest post, below, but first and mainly, I want to outline a prior dispute involving Boaler, which went public in 2012. The purpose of revisiting this decade-old dispute is not to distract from Boaler’s latest claims, but to provide needed context for these claims.

In 2012, Boaler wrote a post titled,

Jo Boaler reveals attacks by Milgram and Bishop

Boaler’s post began,

Honest academic debate lies at the core of good scholarship. But what happens when, under the guise of academic freedom, people distort the truth in order to promote their position and discredit someone’s evidence? I have suffered serious intellectual persecution for a number of years and decided it is now time to reveal the details.

As Boaler laid it out, this “intellectual persecution” was conducted by mathematicians James Milgram and Wayne Bishop, and the underlying dispute was over the merits or otherwise of Boaler’s famous and highly influential “Railside” study, critiqued by Milgram and Bishop and statistician Paul Clopton, a critique later published here.

This double dispute, over both “Railside” and Bishop’s/Milgram’s conduct, has been much discussed. At the time, Inside Higher Ed had an even-handed report, and The Mathologer and I wrote about it in our Age column. Boaler’s 2012 post is not now fully available (24/04/23 – archived here), although Boaler includes the timeline of “persecution” from that post at the bottom of her new post (confusingly using the same link Boaler used in 2012). Boaler subsequently expanded upon her criticisms of Milgram and Bishop (in an article that now appears to be inaccessible online), and Milgram and Bishop responded to the criticisms here and here.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by who I think won this dispute: clearly, it was Boaler.

In 2012, I knew essentially nothing of Boaler or her work, and cared less. Then, Boaler posted her claims and I witnessed Australian mathematics teachers rush to Boaler’s defence; I could not detect a millimetre of openness to the possibility that there might be some substance to Milgram’s and Bishop’s and Clopton’s criticisms. I also knew Milgram from my student days at Stanford (he didn’t know me), and I knew he was meticulous and ferociously intelligent. I was curious.

I looked, and when I looked, three things became clear. First, Milgram and Bishop and Clopton had worked extraordinarily hard to understand Boaler’s Railside study and had made detailed and serious criticisms, which required a proper response. Secondly, Boaler had no intention of making any such response, to the substance of M-B-C’s criticisms; if Boaler has ever done so, I am not aware of it. Thirdly, mathematics teachers in the thrall of Boaler didn’t give a damn about any of this.

The cultish faith in Boaler’s innocence and wisdom was, and is, something to behold. In 2012, Boaler employed accusations of bad behaviour to distract from the substantive criticisms of her research, and it worked. Boaler was playing a game, and she won. Now, in 2023, she is playing the same game.

Boaler is currently being subjected to scrutiny and criticism and, seemingly, abuse, due to her prominent role in the new Californian mathematics curriculum, a curriculum which, to put it mildly, is controversial. About a year ago, the battle over this curriculum led to a public run-in with Jelani Nelson, in which Boaler once again tried to play the victim. I have not been paying attention, but I imagine the battle is still heated, and probably hotter.

Jo Boaler, the Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University,  begins her new post by tying the M-B-C dispute to recent events:

Honest academic debate lies at the core of good scholarship. But what happens when, under the guise of academic freedom, a small cluster of aligned people distort the truth in order to discredit someone’s evidence and boost their own allied position? I have come under severe academic and personal attacks for many years from the same male professors, who I list below. I first shared the details of their attacks on my work in 2012, listed below. Their aggressive efforts have intensified significantly in the last three years, due to their consternation over my role as one of the writers of a new proposed mathematics framework for the state of California.  

Boaler then quickly runs through the 2012 dispute, from her perspective and declaring the great importance and quality of her research. Fair enough, but readers need not believe her, and I do not. I will give one concrete example. Boaler writes there,

Milgram and Bishop, and now others, have tried to discredit this research as they do not like the findings. This makes more sense when considering that Bishop has used a highly offensive racial slur when discussing issues of equity.

The clearly intended implication of this claim, which Boaler details in her 2012 post, is that Bishop is racist, which is absurd, and Boaler must know it is absurd. (Boaler’s link is broken, but the article is archived here). I note Bishop’s response to this nonsense and include links here. But it doesn’t matter: Bishop is successfully painted as the racist, and we go on. Boaler’s post is replete with such manipulation, both blatant and subtle.

Boaler then moves on to the recent attacks of her, stemming from the Californian curriculum battle:

Now in 2023 I am again experiencing the same attempts to suppress research evidence. As stated, this was originally started by Milgram and Bishop, but they are now being joined by others, particularly six men, who are part of a broader, organized campaign to discredit me, that has led to threats of physical violence to myself and my family. …

The efforts of this small group of people opposing these ideas included several negative articles shared through social media and news media. The first death and rape threats I received came [in 2021] after Tucker Carlson shared my name and image on his Fox News Show with the words: “Professor: ‘Math Should Have Social Justice Infused.’” He suggested that it meant that the framework was proposing that “numbers are racist”. The threatening emails and letters that followed included threats to myself, my two daughters, and directives that “I go back to where I came from.” 

The following year, a group of people opposed to the three main objectives in the framework, focused their work on discrediting me, personally and professionally. These new ramped-up attempts to silence me and suppress my research included serving districts with public records requests to find any work I had conducted with teachers. They then published contracts, including my home address, on Twitter (this is called doxing). They claimed I was “robbing districts” which led to a mob on social media attacking my work, and placing my family under physical threat. During the most intense time of doxing and online harassment, which included sharing my personal emails on Twitter, Stanford police decided they needed to include my house in their daily patrols to ensure our safety. The emails the group shared on Twitter included very personal details of my life, including discussion of the recent death of my young niece, from adrenal cancer. The same group petitioned journals to pull my research articles down, and they amplified the older claims made by Milgram and Bishop, that my research on equitable teaching, had included manipulated data.

Again, Boaler is documenting obviously revolting behaviour, and one hopes the cops are involved. But, again, this is a game. Boaler is bundling together vicious trolling with strong but considered criticism of her work and her research. So, if one then points out that this criticism might have merit, and that Boaler has not addressed this criticism in any substantive manner, her supporters can cry “What about the rape threats?” It is difficult to see this as anything but a deliberate ploy.

To be fair, Boaler’s post also also includes a link to a post with her responses to recent criticisms of her work. (The linked post includes no reference to, much less a defence of, Railside.) Greg Ashman has now looked at one area of this response, Boaler’s long-held claim that timed tests directly cause “maths anxiety”. Ashman accepts that maths anxiety is a thing. (I do not.) But, Ashman wants to see the evidence that timed tests are a cause. So, Ashman goes on a long, long trek, following the trail of Boaler’s references. Ashman eventually returns, empty-handed: he has found no proper evidence for Boaler’s claim. Which is no shock. There is always a risk in taking a Boaler claim at face value.

The vicious, headline attacks of Boaler apparently began in 2021, so why post on it now? Well, Boaler indicates that the Chronicle of Higher Education is planning an article and, although CHE is the furthest thing from a reactionary publication, it appears the article will give at least some space to Boaler’s critics:

After I was contacted and asked to participate in an article that is appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the end of March, 2023, representing the views of Milgram and six other men, I decided it is time to share the broader context of the attacks on my work, and the attempts to suppress my research and discredit my integrity.   

Lifting the lid on my interactions with the Chronicle, the reporter asked me to respond to Milgram’s statement that “I should not be at Stanford” and I should “stay in my lane.” She also said that critics described me as “combative”. I replied that women are often given this label when standing up for their work.  I also told her that I give no credence to Dr. Milgram’s very personal and individual assessment of what I should be doing or where I should be working. 

Disgraceful, of course. Except, what if Milgram is correct? What if Boaler should not be at Stanford?


UPDATE (24/03/23)

The CHE articled alluded to by Boaler has now appeared, here (open access after free registration). The author, Stephanie M. Lee, also has a Twitter thread, here, mostly on Boaler’s preemptive post. And, Greg “The Salesman” Ashman, who is quoted in Lee’s piece together with a response from Boaler, has written on that aspect, here. It is all well worth a read.


UPDATE (26/03/23)

To the best of my knowledge, Boaler has not written anything in response to Lee’s CHE article. Below is an openly sympathetic podcast interview with Boaler, which appeared on 24 March, around the same time as Lee’s article. It is unclear when the interview was recorded but it was clearly recently, and in response to Lee’s scrutiny of Boaler.

UPDATE (11/04/23)

Boaler has written an opinion piece for EdSource,

Let’s move past the acrimony, and create a mathematics framework that works for all students

How does one move past the acrimony? Boaler begins the article by linking to her Crossing the Line post, and writing,

Unfortunately, the debate about the best way to teach math correctly has become very contentious, and I continue to be the target of misinformation and even personal attacks.

So, the way to end the acrimony is apparently for Boaler to cast herself once again as the victim, and to wave away the criticisms of her work as “misinformation”. It should work a treat.

64 Replies to “Jo Boaler, Ever the Victim”

  1. I know nothing about any of this issue but your post seems admirably fair and nuanced. At first glance, I feel sorry for Boaler and the academics criticising Boaler’s work – it’s seems to be a mess that must be unpleasant for them all, even if some of them might be playing games and wanting to appeal to popular (but anti-academic, anti-democratic) political forces.

    The only detail that surprised me was that you don’t think that maths anxiety is a thing. I see it all the time among my many students (and others) and I work hard to show them that they have no reason to fear maths, that they can even be good at it and, with a little luck and the right sort of maths, enjoy it. Given that you can teach maths to small kids and make it fun for them, the anxiety isn’t inherent or inevitable, so it comes from people’s experiences. It seems pretty clear to me that it’s due to the terrible maths taught in terrible ways in school, along with ambient culture’s popular distaste for maths and the myth that maths is for brainy nerds only. Tests probably don’t help the matter but whether they are timed or not seems less relevant than whether they are designed fairly and well. Regardless of causes, maths anxiety is definitely there, plain to see.

    But you have thoughtful and nuanced views, so did you maybe mean something more subtle by that statement?
    I’m actually interested, not (just/necessarily) opposing your views (whatever they might be).

    1. Thomas,
      Just have a quick question. Do you think that math anxiety is different to, let’s say, riding a bike anxiety or any other activity related anxiety?

      1. Hi Dr Mike, and thanks for an excellent question!

        And yes, most definitely. I have met people who are anxious about riding bikes but they were either people who hadn’t yet learned to ride a bike or who were scared of riding a bike in the traffic. If you need to learn how to ride a bike, then you ride it and no longer fear it and don’t need to learn more or re-learn it – it’s like riding a bike, so to speak 🙂

        Maths anxiety is very different, in so many ways. First, you have no choice but to learn, and you have to keep learning. You will have to learn it whether you feel that you need to or not, like having to learn how to ride a bike when there’s not even a road nearby. You will be given a crappy bike to use when learning; your teacher will mostly likely not like to ride bikes, and you will constantly fall. You will not be allowed to learn it on your terms on in your own way, and you will be given lots of bike tests, many of which you won’t quite know why you failed, like weird and random traffic rules. You’ll see a few few be brilliant at riding their bikes, and maybe even do some tricks, but the teachers won’t like them doing those tricks. Bike riding is not for fun, and everyone around you and in all ambient media will tell you that bike riding is distasteful and hard, especially if you happen to be a girl. You might even get to be unpopular if you get good at riding a bike, let alone show any enjoyment of it. Most likely, you’ll follow the instructions and examples to pass and get out of high school but you still won’t know how to ride that bike and feel like a failure, not even knowing what it means to ride it. Or, if you actually learned how to ride it, you weren’t allowed to have fun on it. Either way, it’s most likely that you will quickly put that terrible bike riding experience behind you, try to avoid bikes henceforth, and, with great relief but inner failure, join the comforting consensus of the bike-hating majority.

        And so on…

        1. Thomas, thanks for your prompt reply. I believe the anxiety is still the same, whether math anxiety or anything else. Your post pretty much confirms it is that anxiety is still the same, but the ways of dealing with it in different cases are different.

          1. I think the nature of the anxiety relates to the nature of the reward in dealing with the anxiety. I would guess some large % of people feel a physical reward which was very strong after learning to ride a bike, which helped to signify and seed the memory patterns which led to that result. These patterns included starting with anxiety but ending with joy and pleasure, including trial and error and or injury, but involved physical actions and physical signals. The gyroscopic effect of the wheel, the rake and trail of the steering geometry forcing the bars straight as forward energy increases, so on and so forth were all reinforced physically and the mastery of those physical motions produced a physical reward. As this became predictable the reward decreased but it still exists.

            I would guess its a smaller or at least very different % of people who have a physical reward from learning a math principle and applying it to solve a math problem alone.

            As a math reject, I started to learn the stuff I couldn’t be previously taught when it mattered to me the outcome as it related to my life. That started at 10 when I realized the light polls were 100ft apart and I could use math to figure out how fast the go karts and mini bikes were going in the neighborhood. With this information I could know if I was the fastest and maybe more information would help me be the fastest. Since then I have been repeating that process with larger and larger outcomes and although I have yet to fly a plane of my design, I’ve come close. Not everyone has the same rewards, everyone feels different pushing through anxiety, some never do. We have a much longer evolved history of dealing with anxiety as it relates to physical action than we do intellectual problem solving alone decouple from action (actually I have no idea if that is true but it sounds good).

            As a dropout I wouldn’t want to give the Dr. a reading list but you should start with Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard if you want a better understanding of anxiety.

            1. Thanks, Josh. I don’t think anyone who frequents this blog is of the type to lord it over a “dropout”. So feel free to request whatever to whomever.

              I’m also not sure how you came to land on this post, but there are subsequent posts more directly on “maths anxiety”. I think you’ll find plenty of comments there that are sympathetic with your point of view.

    2. Thanks, Thomas. I don’t know if my post is fair: I tried. Certainly, my post is not independent, or not objective, or not something. I’ve watched Boaler for a long time, and I think there is much less to her than meets the eye, and I’ve made that pretty clear on a number of occasions. Readers have no particular reason to trust my claims or my judgment.

      Regarding “maths anxiety”, I kind of knew that’d be a bit of a distraction, and I tried to wall off my slap with parentheses. But I feel it is misleading to let these things by without comment. Put it this way:

      1) I think anxiety is a thing, but I don’t believe “maths anxiety” is a particularly special version of that thing.

      2) It doesn’t much matter what you call it. If kids think they suck at maths, or fear maths, or whatever, the question is what do you do about it? To my mind, the obvious answer is that you get them better at maths. To my mind, the obvious bad answer is to coddle them and cheer “Good job!” for adding 2 and 3, or whatever.

      You wrote, particularly in regard to primary school,

      It seems pretty clear to me that it’s due to the terrible maths taught in terrible ways in school, along with ambient culture’s popular distaste for maths and the myth that maths is for brainy nerds only.

      I would agree, but we may (or may not) agree in what we regard as terrible about the terribleness. I am less concerned about the absence of (actual) fun than the absence of (actual) maths. It is a hell of a lot easier to be anxious about a discipline for which you have not been taught the basic facts and fundamental skills, or even the importance of these.

      1. Thanks a lot for your kind and thoughtful reply, Marty!

        1) Anxiety comes in many flavours and for many reasons. Maths anxiety is special in its flavours and reasons, several of which I’ve described in my reply to Dr Mike above. Whether the flavour of an anxiety distinguishes it from other anxieties enough to warrant a name for that particular anxiety is a matter of semantic interpretation, for which there is no right or wrong: you would be right to adjust the resolution of semantics to just talk about anxiety in general, and others would be equally correct to adjust the resolution to a more fine-grained differentiation of anxieties.

        But that’s just the flavour of anxiety. What makes maths anxiety different from many other anxieties is that it is in large part a cultural phenomen. All around us – or, more particularly, around high school kids and, even more particularly, around high school girls – culture tells us that maths is too hard, too boring, too unpopular. Even if you’re good at maths and might like it, the cultural pressure might turn you off maths. There are plenty of reasons why someone leaving high school would dislike maths without that cultural factor but that factor turns the distaste and anxiety into something else, prey to the predating mob mentality that feeds and grows larger by capturing people who might subscribe to maths-fear or maths-hate. I think this is especially true in “team-sports” cultures like Australia where people are generally trained away from individual and critical thinking, and are instead trained to join teams and the teams’ views and sentiments.

        It’s actually funny, though sad: a different sort of maths anxiety is that of the very top students, especially if they’ve been active in IMO competitions. I’ve seen many of these bright people crash into a wall when studying maths at uni, no longer as special and losing hope when “only” getting 98% for a course, for instance. You would be right to see this anxiety as one of many high-performance anxieties, not a special category of anxiety as what people refer to as “maths anxiety”.

        2) The name could possibly matter, just like any other useful diagnosis label. Having the label and the understanding of this particular – and fairly unique – type of anxiety is really helpful for helping people get rid of it, at least in my experience. I’m guessing that you and I might mostly agree about what to do about it. On the other hand, your comments about coddling are not related to anything that I’ve written, so I’m guessing that you’re referring to some other discussion with someone else.

        As for how to teach maths in primary school, I strongly agree that a few basic skills are needed whether they are fun to learn or not. The fun stuff can wait – and will be actually fun if you can do the basic stuff but not otherwise. On the other hand, it is quite easy to make the basic stuff fun (or fun-ish, depending on topic) for most people. Australian schools seem to have gone from one bad extreme to another, from reciting times tables in class, with angry nun teacher whacking students with wooden ruler for reciting incorrectly, to not learning them at all.

        1. Thanks again, Thomas. I’ll be less thoughtful in this reply: I don’t buy it. If you think “reciting times tables” is a “bad extreme” then our differences run way, way deeper.

          1. Thanks for your replies, including the link to that article by you and Burkard.
            It’s a good article and I agree with it completely – but it has nothing to do with maths anxiety, only with what some people mistakenly say to counter that anxiety, namely that maths is easy (which it is certainly not).

            I am not Australian and try to stay out of local culture trench wars, so please read my comments for what they state, not what other people might have stated about similar topics in the past. For instance, when I write that reciting times tables is a bad extreme, then that is exactly what I mean; I don’t mean that learning times tables is bad. Learning times tables is part of the basic skill set that everyone needs to do maths in the modern, standard sense. Reciting times tables works for some students who have a linguistic and verbal approach to learning and understanding but, for most people, reciting is just a terrible way to learn anything. There are far better ways to learn stuff, especially these days. The same goes for wooden rulers: fear and authority-obeying are not great for learning.

            1. One piece at a time:

              “when I write that reciting times tables is a bad extreme, then that is exactly what I mean.”

              When I write that that reciting times tables is a very, very good thing to do, that is exactly what I mean.

              Thomas, don’t drink the Kool Aid.

              1. We agree that learning times tables is a very good thing to do.

                However, are you really saying that recitation is a generally good way to learn?
                That’s just not actually true for most people’s way of learning.

                Kool Aid? Again, you seem to be implying that I’m joining some team’s views here. I wouldn’t even know what that team was, let alone what views it has. I just observe, think about things, listen to my own experiences and to those other others around me. In my personal experience – with many thousands of students, verbal communication is good for high-level narrative insight but terrible for nuts and bolts technical details like time tables. A few students benefit from it but only a strict minority.

                I would still be interested in why you think that maths anxiety is somehow not a thing, if you would happen to have an explanation of your views. Not worries if not! I was just curious, and you’re of course free to have whatever views you like, with or without reasons for them. The tone in your post seemed to be particularly fair and reasonable, so I thought that this might also extend to an elaboration of your statement about maths anxiety not being a thing.

                1. I’d like to reply about the math anxiety thing. But this times tables recitation stuff is a clearer target. I’ll also make one statement about class order that you can react to (or not).

                  Speaking out loud the times tables allowed me (and many others) to have instant recall of multiplication facts. I still have this instant recall and it allows me to perform many calculations quickly, giving me more mental space to process problems.

                  At a local school (my child’s school) students struggle with math. Their parents pay for expensive tutors. I just had my child recite three or four times tables twice over each day after school at a time of their choosing in a sing-song together, they choose the rhythm. After a couple of days they started to love it. Made challenges for themselves. But that’s just a bonus. They recommend to their friends to just recite times tables now. It’s often spoken after tests, the national one just passed by last week.

                  If you teach times tables using algorithms and strategies, that’s missing the point.

                  Alright, and the statement on class order. The students should be at desks facing the front of the class so that they can listen to the teacher and be facing them.

                  1. Glen, are you suggesting there should be like an authority figure or something at the front of the classroom?

                    1. There are certainly people who would disagree. With my statement at least. I thought there might be an example or two here. But perhaps not, or perhaps they lost interest in the discussion.

              2. Mr Britz seems to forget..or is too young to remember … that prior to all this multiple learning styles nonsense and make teaching entertainment drivel, hundred of thousands of kids..if not millions … all learned their timestables in this rote recitation way and they were successful. So I don’t know where he gets the idea that “only a strict minority of students” are capable of this. Just laughable.

            2. ‘Reciting’ timetables is a very, very good activity, especially after children understand that multiplication is just a special case of addition. Frankly speaking, I see no reason not to recite timetables unless there is some special medical reason for it, which I am unaware of.
              Not only I asked my children to recite timetables I also timed them to see if they were improving.

                  1. Then let’s have a times table for fractions and connect fractions to natural numbers:
                    1 x 1/8 = 🍕 = 1/8
                    2 x 1/8 = 🍕🍕 = 2/8
                    3 x 1/8 = 🍕🍕🍕 = 3/8
                    4 x 1/8 = 🍕🍕🍕🍕 = 4/8
                    5 x 1/8 = 🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕 = 5/8
                    6 x 1/8 = 🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕 = 6/8
                    7 x 1/8= 🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕 = 7/8
                    8 x 1/8 = 🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕 = 8/8 or 1 unit or 1 whole

                    Just a retired maths teacher having fun!
                    I tried very hard for 37 years. I spent 25 years trying to survive in an education department as a teacher educator, but thinking like a mathematician about curriculum. Helping students make strong connections among maths concepts and operations was my only view concerning constructivism. Nothing else.

              1. Both are sort of true, but be careful.

                Multiplication is not really “just a special case of addition”: it only starts that way, and a critical, often missed, step in understanding is to realise that multiplication is its own thing. See this post.

                Yes, fraction multiplication is division, but why it is, is perhaps a little more tangled than is generally realised. See this post.

                1. I agree. 3 x 1/8 is not the hardest bit. It is just one more bit.

                  Even 1/3 x 1/5 is not the hardest bit to teach at schools (and to teach teachers).

                  2/3 x 4/5 is the hardest with rational numbers.

                  The area model to teach multiplication of fractions requires lots of practice, even with teachers. Yet it is the main model I know to teach younger students with understanding.

                  1. You’re the boss, or the retired boss, but I would’ve thought 1/3 x 1/5 is the hardest idea to get. 2/3 x 4/5 is just a couple multiplications extra (give or take yelling at the kids a hundred times to first look for cancellation.)

                    1. Concerning your comment “(give or take yelling at the kids a hundred times to first look for cancellation.)”, could you, be kind enough, and explain it to me? English is not my native language.

                      I am the boss? Why? Prove it, if you can! You have too little data about me. For this reason, I will present a bit more data about me.

                      You may think that I am the boss (without knowing anything about me), but it seems you are the one wishing to be the boss.

                      This tends to show me what maths education has become: A war with only two sides. I represent the third side: the students, the school teachers, the parents, etc.

                      Although I am considered a maths educator because I did a PhD in education, I think that maths educators made many mistakes and proposed stupid things about constructivism. I do agree with this. I must say that I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with those reforms. I fought them as much as I could. No, do not call me a hero. Boss is enough!

                      However, mathematicians also made a very bad curriculum reform in the past. The “New Maths Curriculum” of the 60s. So I believe the war was started by mathematicians!

                    2. Hi Solange,

                      My “you’re the boss” remark was wasn’t meaning to suggest your were trying to decree what is true, and in fact I meant the opposite: you, and other teachers, have way more experience than me with real kids in real classrooms.

                      What I meant by “cancellation first” was a problem such as 21/5 x 15/42. The majority of Year 6 students I know will multiply the top, multiply the bottom, and then, maybe, look for cancellation. Which is, um, not optimal.

            3. I’ll reply when I next come up for air. For now, I’ll just note that authority-obeying is critical for learning.

  2. Thank you for this detailed discussion of the pattern.

    As I responded to Steven Strogatz on Twitter, when he mentioned only the threats against Boaler but not her effect on math teaching (glibly put, her affect but not her effect): “I don’t condone threats at all, but harsh criticism of her whole approach is in order. Pretty much every awful dumbing down of the math curriculum in our former school district, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was defended by the district `experts’ with `But Jo Boaler says…’.”

    It was talking to walls. Eventually the district replaced the excellent Singapore Math curriculum (in US grades 6-8) with the worst math curriculum that I have ever seen, Illustrative Mathematics. It’s also highly rated by the math-teaching profession, which tells you all that you need to know.

    (I was an undergraduate in physics at Stanford. The whole Boaler saga, along with the recent disruption of a federal judge’s speech at the Stanford Law School, don’t fill me with pride in my alma mater.)

    1. Thanks, Sanjoy. I saw Strogatz’s tweet, and was similarly annoyed, although I can’t say I was disappointed. Strogatz was great as a Times columnist, but lately it feels like he’s looking for a shark to jump.

      Generally, although I agree with you on Boaler’s work and her effect, I’m trying to stay away here from that argument, except to note that the argument is there to be had. The only point I’m trying to make here is that Boaler can simultaneously be a victim and be playing the victim, she’s happily played the victim in the past, and she’s doing it again here.

      More generally, I also noted that Stanford Law School idiocy, but there’s no point here in broadening to that kind of culture war, even if Boaler invites it in her post.

  3. The psychologist at my school says maths anxiety is a thing. Therefore, as far as my school is concerned, it is a thing. No argument allowed.

    There are other, deeper issues with Boaler’s Railside study though that, despite all her carry-on I don’t feel have been properly addressed. Saying someone is attacking you because they question your data analysis is not the best way to win a debate; perhaps this card was not played with the intention of “winning” but it does appear to me (as an outsider) that only one side of the Railside debate was willing to try to understand the arguments of the other side.

    I could be wrong, of course, I wasn’t there.

  4. In relation to the discussion above about maths anxiety, I think I can add something because I think I have experienced anxiety – which I take to mean a kind of habitual physiological fight/flight/freeze response to certain perceived threats.

    When the ‘threat’ is mathematical symbols or words, then it makes sense to call it maths anxiety. The particulars would probably vary from person to person a lot. I went through a time of experiencing maths anxiety, but timed tests were never the problem for me.

    One thing about anxiety is that it significantly affects your ability to think in the moment – your brain is preoccupied with fight, flight, or freeze and doesn’t have as much energy for other kinds of thought. This can be particularly tricky when the threat is mathematics because succeeding at mathematics tends to unavoidably involve thinking (taking in nuanced information and formulating a response). For other situations, you can anticipate what will happen and prepare yourself with some kind of all-purpose script and operate on autopilot. Sometimes I see students attempt this with mathematics, but it doesn’t work that well. Fortunately/unfortunately, you usually need to actually think.

    (Also, since a lot of my anxiety about maths was related to believing I was stupid, having large parts of my brain distracted by anxiety can tend to reinforce that belief.)

    I think cognitive load theory is particularly helpful here: strategies for dealing with anxiety for me are about functioning effectively through a situation with significantly impaired cognition. Any reduction in cognitive load helps. Personally, the workarounds I found in the past generally seem to align with strategies informed by that theory.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you had that maths anxiety, and really good to hear that you were able to escape it! (From the sound of what you write) Thanks a lot for describing that anxiety and its particular traits! I try to minimise any cognitive overload when teaching, but I hadn’t realised what you point out, that the heavy thinking required from maths makes it hard to deal with the stress by anticipation or auto-piloting. That’s a really useful observation; thanks a lot!! I often tell the people I’m teaching to not-think whenever possible, like when writing a proof to turn your brain off and just start writing “Proof. [etc.]”, partly to get into a habit that has its own momentum and confidence, letting your brain not overthink too much and to help get over scary-proof writer’s block. Your observations give a much broader and more useful framework for my approach; thanks a lot!

    2. I hope you are hearing yourself when you are saying, “‘threat’ is mathematical symbols or words, then it makes sense to call it maths anxiety”. And when the threat is an octagon, it is what – “geometrical anxiety”? And when the threat is solving a system of equations, it is then “algebraic anxiety”? And when kids don’t understand the concept of “fair coin”, then it is obviously “probabilistic anxiety”.
      Equally, we must have “poetry reciting anxiety”, and surely we must never underestimate the “punctuation marks” anxiety.
      I truly hope you are seeing the fallacy in your arguments.

        1. Sorry everyone, if my comments come across as “aggressive”, but they aren’t really. I would have replied the same if we were talking in a pub over a pint. I am honestly trying to point out that this way of thinking would lead to nowhere.

          1. It’s fine, and I happen to agree with your conclusion. But what works over a pint doesn’t necessarily work in the form of electrons.

          2. Thanks. It’s fine, but a little baffling. Sorry, I can’t see the fallacy. But my focus wasn’t in making an argument (I don’t care that much about arguing for the name). I was just describing my experience. People can and do have phobias of a great many things. A major feature of anxiety or phobias is that they are irrational, or at least disproportionate, responses to a perceived threat. They probably do seem stupid to people who don’t experience them.

            I think they tend to only be given a name when they are observed often enough to bother with one. (I’m not sure why sometimes it’s anxiety and other times it’s called phobia.) Arachnophobia, agoraphobia, social anxiety, phone anxiety, etc. My understanding is that the names are just taxonomical – categorising what is observed, not imagining things into existence. It is common for people to have an anxious response to mathematics in some (irrational) way that inhibits them.

            1. There is no fallacy. As you say, you’re describing your experience, and it happens to be an experience that many others share. It is an experience that is unique enough for those experiencing it to give it a label, and as a teacher, I find it a very useful label, just like your very excellent examples of fears and anxieties.

              I don’t understand why anyone would dismiss these experiences, let alone want to dismiss them, for whatever unknown reasons. It’s particularly strange that anyone wanting to support maths education in Australia would want to deny and dismiss the unique and culturally fueled anxiety that so many students in Australia sometimes experience when facing maths in class. It’s one of the main obstacles to improving maths education, and I’ve spent a lot of time effort and time breaking down that particular fear for my students. Once that barrier has been torn down enough, or at least lowered enough, and once they experience and being to trust their own maths abilities, then they can finally learn. They often find joy in that, sometimes to the point of being in a state of love or addition with maths, pretty cool to see. It also seems to often be those students who help other students and infect them with understanding, confidence and excitement, like rings in water. Acknowledging the fear and distaste of maths among many students, and then doing something about it, makes a huge difference both to people’s learning and appreciation of maths but also to how they see themselves and their happiness. That’s been my experience as a teacher but other people might teach differently, and although my personal observations seem to me to be more universally valid, I don’t have any proof of that and could be wrong. On the other hand, my methods seem to work particularly well, and I see this as partial proof.

              In case anyone’s interested for more context about my comments here, this video might give a better impression of my experiences than what I’ve written here: It’s not about maths anxiety itself but deals with many related matters.

              1. I don’t want to spam this discussion about Jo Boaler with further debate about ‘types of anxieties’ or anything else that serves as an ‘Alcibiades dog’ in this thread.
                Let me just say that I disagree with how you present many of the things you are saying. I am afraid correlation vs causality is a problem.

              2. Thank you! It sounds like you teach a really lovely course. It’s inspiring to think of mathematics as something that can help people be happy together in hard times.

                1. Thank you very much! 🙂
                  That’s very kind of you, and yeah: that was a fantastic and happy surprise to discover!

  5. Why are your comments so sarcastic and inflammatory? You hardly seem objective in your dissection of Professor Boaler’s post.

  6. Thanks, CA.

    1. I am not claiming objectivity. My very first comment was:

    I don’t know if my post is fair: I tried. Certainly, my post is not independent, or not objective, or not something. I’ve watched Boaler for a long time, and I think there is much less to her than meets the eye, and I’ve made that pretty clear on a number of occasions. Readers have no particular reason to trust my claims or my judgment.

    2. I’ll admit to a little sarcasm (but not a lot). I think the post by Jo Boaler, The Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education, Stanford University, is so blatantly manipulative that she has earned it.

    3. What have I written here that is inflammatory? Sure, I have no problem being inflammatory: I love a good war as much as the next man. Here, I’ve tried to play it pretty straight.

    4. Do you regard Boaler’s post as inflammatory?

    5. Do you have any concerns with the substance of my post, or do you simply object to any criticism of Boaler?

  7. I’ve updated the post with a link to the CHE article, which appeared yesterday, and with a couple related links.

    I’ve also just put up a “maths anxiety” post, for people who wish to whack me on that one.

    1. Interestingly, Prof Boaler only taught math for a year, just couldn’t cope, and left teaching for academia. So, although says she was a math teacher it was very short lived! I believe it’s difficult for someone to instill policies on professionals without a true understanding on what it is like to teach math day in and day out. Also, as is widely published, she makes millions out of her consultancy and advice…. My cynical side can’t help think this is all about money and not the children. Does she have another book coming out?

      1. Thanks, Pythagoras. I’ve just updated the post with a link to a new article by Boaler.

        I don’t think if Boaler has had limited teaching experience that this disqualifies her from participating in curriculum matters. Nor does her willingness to rake in the loot. But there are other reasons to question her fitness.

        1. I did not understand why, in the year 2008, Jo Boaler wrote a publication criticising the meta-analisis performed by the NMAP. One person criticising a bunch of well known researchers. Including Deborah Ball who is a maths educator working with mathematicians.

          1. What’s difficult to understand? If Boaler doesn’t like some research work (or metawork), she has every right and motivation to criticise it. It doesn’t mean anybody else should pay any attention to her criticism.

  8. This is not rocket science. Anybody who advocates removing algebra from the highschool curriculum needs to have their head examined. The woman is a DEI ideologue, plain and simple.

    The most important lesson young people need to learn is that life is hard. The second lesson is that life is not fair. The third lesson is that they don’t deserve anything. Anything they want they are going to have to work for.

    She needs to take her WOKE bs across the Atlantic back to the miserable island she came from where they worship this kind of nonsense.

    The word hysterical derives from the Latin word hystericus or womb. Enough said.

    1. The woke BS doesn’t come from the ‘miserable island’ but rather from a particular country full of ignorant and self-entitled slobs where people like her make a promising career.

    2. Chanting “woke” doesn’t help your argument. It’s simply a lazy slur.

      I assume this post is being revisited because of the recent attack/complaint again Boaler. I’m in the midst of writing a short post on it.

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