Ch. 8: Happiness and Success in Math Class

Prof. Jo Boaler, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University

Jo Boaler’s work in math education has brought her worldwide attention and praise. A professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, she was the subject of a feature article in Stanford magazine, “Jo Boaler Wants Everyone to Love Math: Yes, even you.” (Posted April 27, 2018:; the following excerpts are used with Prof. Boaler’s permission.)

Boaler has repeatedly demonstrated that amazing things happen when we adjust math instruction to the student’s individual mindset:

By adopting richer, more open teaching methods and encouraging kids to adopt a growth mindset, Boaler believes, educators can help students make strides. In 2015, she and her associates brought 81 middle schoolers — many of them underachievers — to [the Stanford] campus for a four-week math camp centered on activities taken from the Week of Inspirational Math. The students began the camp convinced they were “not math people,” Boaler says. But they were soon engaged. After four weeks of morning classes and afternoon enrichment, the students had improved their scores on standardized math tests by an average of 50 percent, or 2.7 school years.

Granted, the results were achieved in a university research environment, under focused conditions with multiple expert instructors, using state-of-the-art methods.

But Boaler found that when math instruction is adapted to each student’s unique mental and emotional makeup in public school classrooms, successes like these are common.

LWS middle school students work cooperatively during math class.

LWS middle school students work cooperatively during math class.

The article relates the experience of Marc Petrie, a middle school math teacher in Orange County, California. Petrie teaches in a school district where 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. When he began teaching, the students were deeply demotivated — traditional “test-and-drill” methods had let them down, leaving most of the students behind.

A decade later, the students sit in groups, “working together to come up with varying approaches to problems, while Petrie cruises the room as a coach, more likely to ask guiding questions than to give answers.”

The results have been dramatic, with math test scores rising 60 to 90 percent. Other district schools have since adopted Petrie’s methods.

Petrie’s classes closely resemble how math is taught in the Living Wisdom Schools—with the exception that, at the Palo Alto school, three adults will wander the classroom during math class, including middle school teacher Gary McSweeney and two math aides, asking and responding to questions and working individually with the students.

The value of this non-traditional approach is evidenced by the LWS students’ success in fields that demand high levels of math proficiency. LWS graduates have thrived at Stanford, UC Berkeley (physics), the University of Michigan (Ross School of Business), Cornell (mathematics), the University of Bremen, Germany (doctoral program in Space Technology and Microgravity), and other top schools.

From the companion book to this volume, Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School and Life (

Over the years, our middle school teacher, Gary McSweeney, has carefully monitored the atmosphere in the classroom while the students take the challenging American Mathematics Competition and International Math Olympiads tests. Gary has been pleased to note that it is much more relaxed than the stereotypical test scenario where the teachers are pressuring the students to do well, and where the students often feel that their self-worth is on the line.

 “I would say that my students enjoy the concentrated effort of taking a timed test in silence. The questions require the students to employ creative, out-of-box strategies to solve problems. These are not multiple-choice tests, so there is no possibility of them guessing the correct answer. In part, they are reading-comprehension problems. They challenge the students to analyze the question carefully and understand what is being asked. Our students enjoy taking the tests as a way to demonstrate their skills, and to see where they can improve their understanding and knowledge.”

Jo Boaler believes high-pressure testing impairs math performance:

 “For Boaler, the test — with its focus on speed, volume and performance — is a big part of why math crushes spirits like no other subject. To her, it represents shallow learning with debilitating consequences. Students who work slowly are often left convinced of their own inability, although they may be the deeper kind of thinkers who make the best mathematicians. And even those who calculate speedily — not a skill Boaler thinks is particularly valuable in the digital age — may end up shrugging off math as a high-pressure hamster wheel.

“As a researcher, teacher and evangelist, Boaler is a leading voice for a wholly different pedagogy where speed is out, depth is in, and the journey to an answer can be as important as the destination. It’s an approach where sense-making matters more than memorization, and retaining ‘math facts’ matters less than understanding how such facts interconnect.”

It’s an approach that has been adopted with seamless success for more than forty-five years in the Living Wisdom Schools. How well does it work? A Head & Heart chapter, “Mathematics Competitions at Living Wisdom School,” outlines the method and describes the results. (See

At LWS, our overriding concern is how our students’ math skills are improving individually over the years. This is in keeping with our philosophy of helping each child experience the joy and satisfaction of overcoming academic challenges at their own level. This is why we focus on improving math skills rather than improving test performance. We have found that focusing on skills improves test results naturally and enjoyably.

The results are reflected in our students’ performance when they enter high school. Many LWS graduates test out of freshman math; occasionally, they test out of algebra, geometry, and even trigonometry….

During the 2015-16 academic year some of our youngest students (4th graders) who took the International Math Olympiads tests scored in the top 30% on the 8th grade test. Very impressive! And two students scored in the top 5% internationally. Extremely impressive!

Individualized math instruction is highly effective for students of all levels of ability , not only the math-challenged.

From Head & Heart:

The [American Mathematics Competition] AMC 8 for junior high students includes many problems that demand math skills and experience far beyond those required in most junior high math classes. Congratulations to Freya Edholm of LWS, who [in 2013] achieved a perfect score of 25 — the only perfect score by a sixth-grader in the state of California on this very challenging test for eighth-graders. Of the 20,571 sixth-graders who took the AMC 8 worldwide, only 6 achieved a perfect 25. And of the 152,691 students in grades 5-8 worldwide who took the AMC 8, only 225 students achieved a perfect score. The average score was 10.67.

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