Dr. Jo Boaler: “Anyone Can Learn Math”

Teachers learn a new way to teach math

Laura Masters, Owner, The Masters Company for Learning
Published on August 28, 2017
“Real math is visual, exciting, creative, and accessible” — Dr.  Jo Boaler

Stanford University’s Dr. Jo Boaler demonstrates in her interactive workshops, the need and methodology to open up math to teachers, parents and students. She believes that math was never meant to be taught by boring, procedural, and rote-learning calculations that are then timed and corrected.

NapaLearns invited Dr. Boaler to Napa to engage, excite, and empower Napa teachers to learn and teach math differently, and to inspire their students, in a full day workshop in Napa on August 7, 2017. More than 200 teachers attended even though for most it was a summer day off.

Teachers learning a new way to teach math

Dr. Boaler firmly believes, and teaches, that the best way to change how math is taught, is to have teachers engage in math in a different, hands-on, interconnected way. An hour slipped by practically unnoticed by teachers when Boaler presented a math patterning problem for groups to solve with words, pictures, and proofs. Most educators were astonished by their level of engagement in solving the problem, the camaraderie, and the discoveries they made in the process. Many, too, were dismayed to find out that they may perhaps, know less than they thought about math. Almost all were personally excited to learn in the way they were being invited to teach.

Teachers learning how to teach math
Teachers learn new ways to teach math

3 math myths

Boaler started the day by presenting three damaging math ideas:

Math Brains: You have to be born with a math brain. Many educators and parents believe that math is a gift that either you have or you don’t. Some even want to preserve the idea that math is for the ‘math elite’. The idea that you are born a math person or not, is simply not true. Everyone is born with an innate ability to do math and every human brain is capable of neuroplasticity: it can grow, change, create, and strengthen neural pathways for math. Neuroscience, as well as Dr. Boaler’s methodology, is proving that this is a long held and deeply damaging misconception.

Math Wall: There is no ‘math’ wall to hit. Everyone’s brain is capable of learning advanced math with good teaching and powerful mindsets. The truth is that the more you struggle with a problem, (as weight-lifters increase weights to get stronger), the more your will brain will grow and learn. Boaler would like to see math change from a performance orientation to a learning orientation. Boaler cited a study where significant gains were made when adding only one simple line to student papers they were correcting: “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in your ability.” Boaler dispelled the idea that math needs to be speedy; she says math, as a subject, needs time and space for learning.

Math Anxiety/Trauma: This is a widespread phenomenon. Many adults and teachers have had bad experiences with the subject of math. Math anxiety is created from painful memories of timed tests, monotony, abstract ideas, endless wrong answers, and the absence of relevance. Most of us have heard someone say, “I am just not a math person.” Boaler is aghast that this deplorable comment is widely accepted as normal and has set out to refute it. Math, in her view, should not cause students to wonder why they are learning it. Math is a dynamic, exciting and relevant subject. She challenges the focus on speed and correct answers in math. She offers failure and mistakes as beautiful teachers. Boaler says she meets adult after adult who look back and are able to identify the message or experience that shaped their negative math self-perception, often tearfully. These same adults are able change their mind about their math ability and become eager to teach developing students that they are innately capable of math.

Setting the math world afire with data

In one case, Boaler documented 1.6 years of growth in schooling after only 18 lessons. She spoke of the power of finger perception (and using fingers to count), being a skeptic, questioning everything, adding depth, and multiplicity of ideas and solutions to math.

Boaler sees math as a visual skill and wants students to see themselves as investigators. She asks that children explore before they are taught content. In film clip after film clip, the teachers watched children light up and get excited about math. Everything Dr. Boaler presented was beautifully backed up by powerful data and research. Her website,, is loaded with information, education, and inspiration. NapaLearns is equally on fire with follow up support, education, and ideas for Napa County teachers.

A powerful new mindset

There is no question everyone left this seminar inspired to change, engage, and empower the youth of Napa to be confident in their math ability. The teachers of Napa left Jo Boaler and this game-changing day with new eyes: seeing each of their students, and perhaps themselves, as humans completely capable of developing a brilliant math mind. This powerful mindset being taken into schools this fall will be the foundation for amplifying the success of every math student in Napa County.