SAN JOSE, Calif. » Hate math? Relax; it may not be about you.
Fear of math represents not personal failure or a missing gene but wrongheaded "one-size-fits-all" ways of teaching. That, at least, is the theory behind a quiet revolution in math education incubated in the Bay Area that is exciting teachers even more than an elegant proof of the Pythagorean theorem.
A vanguard of math instructors is embracing ideas developed by two Stanford professors to reform math instruction. Their approach includes more visual and creative exercises, discussions of ideas and procedures rather than a focus on memorization and speed, and individually tailored lessons.
Mention to people that you teach math, David Foster of the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative said, and "to a person they launch into a horror story about high school math. The only mystery is if they blame the algebra teacher or the geometry teacher."
Foster, whose Morgan Hill-based organization offers training and resources for teachers, advocates a more positive approach to get kids to love learning.
"Learning to do math is no different from learning to play the piano or learning to play a sport _ a lot of it is about hard work and practice."
That idea is rooted in the work of psychology professor Carol Dweck and education professor Jo Boaler, whose approaches to teaching math are resonating in education circles _ and spreading virally. Dweck has found failure helps students to learn, grow and get better, and urges that math education focus on helping students persevere even if they do not succeed at first.
Boaler’s free online course last summer attracted 85,000 people. Her approach involves less rote memorization; instead, lessons focus on different ways to solve problems, individualized approaches, small-group discussion and real-life applications of math. Also feeding the teaching revolution is an explosion of online math lessons replacing lectures and one-size-fits-all textbooks.
"We’re in a crisis in math," said Boaler. "These poor kids are given the idea that math is about performance, and then they get the idea that they can’t do it."
As Sahib Dokal, a sixth-grader at Piedmont Middle School in San Jose, put it, "It feels like you have to do it faster and I can’t think that hard."
Teachers say that math trauma has led to math failure. Just 36 percent of U.S. eighth-graders score proficient or above on national tests.
Stressing the importance of effort, the Mountain View-based Khan Academy has launched a math contest recognizing both mastery and hustle among Bay Area schools. The LearnStorm challenge posts weekly scores and has attracted 41,000 students.
"I thought I would bring a little more excitement to my students," said David Hicks of the 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto, which was in first place in effort, or "grit," after the contest’s first week last month. The contest tallies student progress in Khan Academy lessons, which many schools like 49ers use as the main or supplemental math curriculum. An algorithm gauges each student’s work and tailors lessons. Thus, Hicks said, in his mixed-level class, "my algebra students don’t have to wait for my students who are at a third-grade ability." Khan’s "dashboard" shows each student’s progress, level, struggles and effort.
"When I complete it, it makes me feel smart," 49ers eighth-grader Fernando Ibarra said.
Online tools don’t work for everyone. Ana Wallace, a senior at Summit Rainier in San Jose, finds Khan’s video lessons confusing. "You can’t ask Khan questions," she said, and the daily 30 minutes on Algebra II and other subjects just get her more confused.
There are other approaches. Hicks at the 49ers Academy does number talks, often posing a puzzlelike question, and illustrating on the whiteboard students’ step-by-step thinking as they solve the problem. "How does counting by 4s relate to multiplication?" a teacher might ask, in deconstructing a math procedure to help students understand.
But much of what makes math more accessible comes down to just good teaching: not leaving anyone perplexed, keeping track of each student and taking ownership of teaching.
Michelle Rojas, 12, said she hated math in elementary school, and when she asked a question, teachers "explained it in their own college way, instead of for the grade level you were in," she said. Now a sixth-grader at Alpha Blanca Alvarado Middle School in San Jose, she’s understanding lessons.
Teachers and students say that making math relevant is also important.
"The more you can connect the math to their life and make it meaningful, it takes off that pressure," said Mona Keeler, a math teacher who coaches other teachers at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon.
What’s the evidence that these new ways work? So far there are only small-scale reports, individual school tests and plenty of anecdotal evidence.
In math achievement, "I’ve seen humongous growth," Keeler said.
Math innovators point to charters like KIPP, which is working with Dweck and whose Bay Area students scored in the 99th percentile in Algebra I and the 84th percentile in general math in 2013, the last year with statewide test scores.
Foster’s math initiative ran a summer pilot with eight school districts in 2008 teaching the "growth mindset" to struggling students. The following school year, 80 percent were successful in algebra.
So with cheerleading teachers, can everyone learn trigonometry and calculus?
"Most of humanity is capable," Khan Academy founder Salman Khan says firmly. He points to humankind’s strides in literacy, from a small percentage in Western Europe 400 years ago, to now.
What about those with dyscalculia, a math-learning disability?
"It’s hard to know who’s born with a math disability, or who becomes disabled because of the way they’ve been treated in math," Boaler said. "I know we can transform it. We can have kids loving math."