Where has all the knowledge gone?

Jo Boaler wrote an interesting article in Education Week, which was published online on Friday. The article is entitled Where Has All the Knowledge Gone? The Movement to Keep Americans at the Bottom of the Class in Math. In the article she gives some interesting reflections concerning the report of the National Math Panel, about the "anti-knowledge movement" in the U.S., about the Math Wars, and about the development of mathematics education in the U.S. in general. Boaler claims that:

There is a movement at work across America that smothers research knowledge, gives misleading data to parents, and substantially undermines our ability to improve American children’s mathematical understanding.
And she claims that this movement has had a strong impact - even into the White House...


concerned said...

See "Public Service Announcement" at

Jason Dyer said...

Oif. First off, the author does some prose slight-of-hand so I'm not even sure what the "anti-knowledge movement" is, but I'm guessing from context it is "people who don't like Reform Math". (Which is itself essentially a repeat of reforms that have cycled on and off for about 50 years.)

Then, she is blase about scientific method and fine at accepting "natural experiments" (which is just using available statistics? how is that an experiment?) Certainly available statistics should never be ignored, but equating conclusions which may be correlated to 500 different factors to absolute truth is a stretch.

Finally she seems to equate countries that do well with a more problem based approach, which isn't always the case. Singapore for instance relies much heavier on graphic organizers than other countries, but is at its core (from all the material I have been able to see) traditional.

Having said all that I do have a personal bias for the approach of Hungary and the Scandanavian countries (not an exact equivalent of Reform Math, but related), and I believe there are good reasons to use them. However, essays that could easily been dismissed as conspiracy-paranoid rants do not help the cause.

Reidar said...

Thanks for your feedback, both of you!

Jason, I can understand your comment about conspiracy :-)
Still, I must say that I do respect Jo Boaler and her research a lot, and I think the point she raises about what kind of studies they acknowledged in the report of the Math Panel is interesting (no matter if her "conspiracy theories" are true or not). It seems to me that the U.S. (as if that were a person...) has a strong preference for empirical research where the results are generalizable etc. I think it is wise to study issues related to education with caution, and using different methods and different approaches might shed light on different aspects that could all be interesting. I think the mathematics classroom is a complex arena, and I don't believe that it is possible to find out everything there is to know about it using e.g. standardized questionnaires only!


Barry Garelick said...

I think the mathematics classroom is a complex arena, and I don't believe that it is possible to find out everything there is to know about it using e.g. standardized questionnaires only!

Who said anythng about standardized questionnaires? Does the scientific method interest you at all, or do you maintain that education is impervious to such methods? Many of the education studies are based on observations without control groups. The standard response to such criticism is that it is unethical to create experimental conditions on unsuspecting school kids. Putting aside the fact that that is what has been done to thousands of kids by implementing such travesties as Investigations in Number, Data and Space; Everyday Math, Connected Math Program and Jo Boaler's favorite IMP, there are ways to do such experiments without jeopardizing the students.

There are papers that describe such experiments. But the education community would prefer to accept, prima facie, the observations and conclusions of people like Constance Kamii in her "famous" study "The Harmful Effects of Algorithms on Small Children".

The National Math Panel set high standards for a reason.

Reidar said...

Dear Barry,
Of course I am interested in what you refer to as the scientific method, but I think mathematics education research should not limit itself to only one possible paradigm. I guess the study Jo Boaler described in her book "Experiencing school mathematics" would not live up to the high standards set by the Math Panel, but I still think her study is valuable and interesting. And I referred to standardized questionnaires as an example. I am in charge of such a study at the moment actually, but I still think the approach has some serious limitations. I only intended to emphasize my opinion about having an open mind towards the benefit of different approaches in research.


Barry Garelick said...

Quite true. For many of us, some of the math education approaches/programs do not really need scientific evidence to show why they're bad any more than you need an experiment to prove that if you jump out of airplane without a parachute, you will most likely die.

You may be interested in this report by Milgram, Bishop and Clopton that closely examines Ms Boaler's railside report.

href="ftp://math.stanford.edu/pub/papers/milgram/combined-evaluations-version3.pdf">It's located here.

It's located here.

Barry Garelick said...

Oops. Tried to embed the link but it didn't work.

The link is: ftp://math.stanford.edu/pub/papers/milgram/combined-evaluations-version3.pdf

Jason Dyer said...

The drill vs. discovery conflict is one I don't understand. I have always found my greatest success in the classroom when I use both; I switch based on what is best for understanding a particular math concept.

I think the reason for the fighting is there is that the camp chosen seems to come from a top-down philosophical ideal. Hence allowing any of the other side to creep in would be in some sense immoral.

I am however at heart a pragmatist and will use whatever works.

re: the Stanford article. I agree with it that any study that does not reveal the experimental conditions is balderdash.

Also fun: trying to find the conditions upon which international tests are given. After enough reading am I starting to get the impression there is a group of 300 high school students from a single county somewhere representing the entire United States.