The Elephant in the Classroom by Jo Boaler

I have recently read The Elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children Learn and Love Maths by Jo Boaler. The book summarises the extensive research that Professor Boaler has conducted studying what successful maths classrooms look like both in the UK and the USA. Based upon a significant wealth of her own research and other significant contributions, the book is frank about what teaching styles promote the fastest progress in maths learners. The book goes further, describing the current state of maths education within the UK and makes recommendations that both parents and teachers can embrace to improve both the rate of progress and the enjoyment maths students have in their learning.

Jo Boaler’s research is worth considerable attention. She has spent significant periods of time conducting longitudinal studies, following pupils through most of their school careers and within a large variety of educational contexts. The book made for fascinating reading as it challenged what I thought I knew about learning environments that promote rapid and sustained progress. In short, her work shows with considerable research evidence that setting is counterproductive for learning. Mixed ability classes that have a problem-solving focus through the use of Rich Tasks lead to faster rates of progress, high levels of motivation and engagement. Whilst my own prejudices have always steered me away from mixed-ability teaching, believing that you can’t stretch the top and support the bottom as well as you can in a set class, she explains the research says that high attainers achieve just as highly in a mixed ability class, but the lower attainers achieve much higher in a mixed ability environment.

She goes on to explain common learning blocks and negative beliefs that pupils have and what you can do to overcome them. For example, she encourages activities such as Number Talk, where you set the class a mental arithmetic calculation to do. Then you ask them how they solved it, writing all the different methods that pupils used to ‘pull the numbers apart to make the calculations easier and then reassemble them’. Through pupils seeing different strategies for mental arithmetic they learn more efficient methods and understand that we should see numbers as flexible things that can be decomposed and reassembled to our convenience. She explains that these kinds of activities are so important because in a study of low attainers they found the vast majority still count on their fingers and didn’t know any alternative strategies such as number bonds etc. Another worksheet with 100 questions on column addition won’t move them forwards with their maths at all if they count on their fingers for all of them…

I must say that there were portions of this book where Jo described a state of education that I have not seen myself. She talks in depth about Assessment For Learning and how schools are not using it. This is not my own experience as I see effective AFL practice around my own and other schools all the time. Perhaps the national picture is different, but it did come across very doom and gloom in places.

An interesting read, politically controversial in places, but always thought provoking. With such a deep and comprehensive collection of research behind here findings and recommendations, this book is a must read for maths teachers.

3 Responses

  1. another reader says:

    If what Jo Boaler writes goes against your experience, I wouldn’t be so quick to throw out your experience if I were you. Her research methodology has been criticised on many grounds and many in the field could be similarly criticised. Until education research cleans up its act, be cautious.

  2. Sheldon says:

    From what I have read of other reviews online, I have yet to find one that mentions any regards to the real classroom.
    All I read are sanitized examples where the classroom is filled with eager or potentially precocious pupils.
    What about the students who don’t give a fig about maths in general; those who rather be chasing girls and in the hallway or playing football?

    Does she address the motivation problem?

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