Dr. Jo Boaler is an evangelist. Evangelism comes from a Greek word meaning “bringing the good news.” The good news that she brings is that there is a better way to teach math.
Jo started her career as a math teacher in secondary schools in London. Then she received a master’s and Ph.D. in math education from King’s College London.
She became an assistant professor of math education at Stanford and achieved a full professorship in 2006. She left Stanford to teach at Sussex University and then returned to Stanford in 2010.
She also co-founded a company called youcubed. This company sells mathematics education resources. Finally, she is the author of nine books. Her latest is called Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers.
In essence, Jo’s goal is to modernize the teaching of math. She believes in revamping the methods that have been around since the 1800s by removing rote memorization and timed tests.
Her methods make math more relevant with creative, inter-connected, and data-science activities that involve a growth mindset. Along the way, she did upset the status quo of math education.
For example, in 2006 another Stanford professor named James Milgram accused her of scientific misconduct. Stanford officials investigated these allegations and concluded that they “do not have substance.”
Listen to Dr. Jo Boaler on Remarkable People:
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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Jo Boaler
Guy Kawasaki: I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. This episode’s guest is Dr. Jo Boaler. Jo is fundamentally an evangelist. Evangelism comes from a Greek word meaning bringing the good news. The good news that Joe brings is that there is a better way to teach math. Jo started her career as a math teacher in secondary schools in London.
Then she received a master’s and a PhD in math education from Kings College, London. She became an assistant professor of math education at Stanford and achieved a full professorship in 2006. She left Stanford to teach at Sussex University and then returned to Stanford in 2010.
She also co-founded a company called YouCubed. This company sells mathematics education resources.
Finally, she is the author of nine books. Her latest is called Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers. In essence, Jo’s goal is to modernize the teaching of math. She believes in revamping the methods that have been around since the 1800’s by removing rote memorization and timed tests.
Her methods make math more relevant with creative interconnected and data-science activities that involve a growth mindset. Oh, along the way, she upset the status quo of math education–You’ll learn about this shortly.
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People, and now here’s the remarkable Jo Boaler.
Guy Kawasaki: Was there a teacher who changed your life?
Jo Boaler: I did have one maths teacher that kept me in maths, and here I am still in mathematics. And yes, she did change everything.
It was in the UK. I was about seventeen at the time. And prior to that, all my maths teachers, mainly they were men, they would lecture, we would copy, and then this woman came along who, first of all, let us talk about maths, so that was incredible, and we got to discuss ideas.
I still remember her running in the room, panting, hiding behind the door and saying, “Oh my God, the head teachers out there and I’m wearing earrings.” So, she was a character.
Guy Kawasaki: What?! You couldn’t wear earrings?
Jo Boaler: Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of rules in England about what you can wear in school.
Guy Kawasaki: Wait…why couldn’t a teacher wear earrings?
Jo Boaler: Good question. I don’t know. But I–apparently, that was a rule and she was breaking it so she really meant a lot to me. Actually, I got in touch with her last year out of the blue, after decades, and we reconnected which was nice.
Guy Kawasaki: You should send her some earrings.
Jo Boaler: I should.
Guy Kawasaki: I wonder if she knows the impact of that story on you. That’s a great story.
Jo Boaler: I didn’t think so. I shared with her other things that were very impactful. I didn’t mention the earring part.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, you got another impactful story you want to share with us about her?
Jo Boaler: I don’t think so. To me, she changed maths for me. That was what was the biggest impact. Suddenly I saw it was a subject that you could have ideas about, not just a lot of facts that you had to reproduce.
And that was the beginning of something.
Guy Kawasaki: What is the purpose of learning math? Is it for practical use on a day-to-day basis? Is it to shape young minds to learn how to problem solve? Is it to prepare for the SAT?
Jo Boaler: Well, there’s answer I could give of what I would hope maths is there for, and then there’s the answer of the role mathematics plays in our society. On the latter point, I think for most people, it’s all about how well and how quickly I can solve problems, whether I can do well on narrow tests.
And they don’t see mathematics outside of that. It’s all about ranking and evaluating. And that is very sad to me because maths can be this beautiful, visual, creative subject, and it can certainly be very important to people’s lives in lots of different ways, whether it’s analyzing data, which we have everywhere now, or just working out a pattern which unlocks a whole new industry in Silicon Valley.
So it’s important, but not in the way we teach it mostly.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you think that the pandemic causing the lack of SAT’s is going to help the situation?
Jo Boaler: Quite possibly, yes, I mean, that is definitely one of the upsides of the pandemic is all of these colleges that no longer taking the SAT and hopefully they’ll continue with that. And so, I think the pandemic has been sort of mixed in terms of its impact on classrooms and teaching, but that is definitely one of the most positive outcomes I would say.
And these colleges maybe are having to figure out better assessments that actually assess something valuable.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you think there’s any correlation with an SAT score and success in college or life?
Jo Boaler: I think people can tell you that the correlation is extremely low and it SAT scores do not predict how well people do in college and even less predict how well they do in life. So that’s one reason to not use them; They’re just really bad at predicting anything we care about.
Guy Kawasaki: Isn’t the history of the SAT that it was given to determine who would go to war and who wouldn’t or it’s something like that. It’s nothing to do with how we use it today.
Jo Boaler: Hmm. Interesting. I–I don’t know, but you know, we know that it’s hugely impacted by the wealth of families and how much private tutoring–I mean, the whole tutoring industry, for profit tutoring companies, I’m sure they’re really worried that the SAT is going to go away. Yeah, So I mean, there’s so many bad things about it and something I care about is it doesn’t measure creative mathematical thinking at all.
Guy Kawasaki: I would make the case that many people would consider the phrase “creative mathematical thinking” an oxymoron. Only one way to solve a quadratic equation. There’s only one way to solve an algebra. So, what’s creative in math?
Jo Boaler: I would say to those people, “come to YouCubed, our website, have a look at some of the tasks.” Some of the most creative mathematics is actually representations of quadratic expressions. Quadratic is a way of describing a function or a pattern. So, one of the things I love to do is share with people visual patterns and ask them, “how do you see this?”
And they came up with all these different creative ways of seeing it and those creative ways lead to quadratic expressions that they’re equivalent to each other. So, definitely we can be creative with maths. But I agree with you, most people that can’t cannot even think of those words together, creative and maths, because they’ve never experienced that. They’ve only experienced this narrow performance subject, sadly.
Guy Kawasaki: Can you specifically explain the utility of learning calculus? Because I learned calculus and I don’t–I don’t think I ever used it. So, what’s the logic there?
Jo Boaler: I can tell you that we’re spearheading a movement at the moment with Steve Levitt who’s an economist–very famous for writing for economics–to get data science, to be an alternative pathway in schools, an alternative to calculus. And I’m a big fan of that.
I think for some people calculus is useful. If you’re going to be an engineer, great! Do calculus. For the rest of the world, data science would be much more useful, really relevant and engaging.
So, I have a good friend, his name is Steve Strogatz. He’s a mathematician at Cornell, and he just wrote a book, came out last year, called Infinite Powers about what is important about calculus. He tells all these stories about the people who invented it but also all of the ways it’s important in the film industry, in medicine, and technology. And so, it’s a fascinating read, but he would say, I think, that it’s not the calculus were teaching. The calculus in schools is driven by the AP exam back to the College Board.
A lot of methods that kids don’t really understand. So, I would be a fan of teaching people a different calculus. I’m also a fan of having different mathematical options–why do we push our kids to calculus? Maths is a broad subject, and there are more interesting, more engaging pathways that people can take.
Guy Kawasaki: Would you define Data Science for those of us who are wondering what exactly you and Steve Levitt are referring to?
Jo Boaler: So, data science is–or data literacy–is the ability to understand and analyze data and create these amazing data visualizations that we’re seeing everywhere now. And we think the learning of data science really takes part in a process. It’s kind of inquiry process; starts with asking a question. So, you have some that you’re curious about, you ask a question, you find some data that helps you answer it, and you do some work with that data, and then you need to communicate about what you’ve discovered.
So, there’s a big storytelling part to it. So, it’s this process of asking questions and developing meaning and then communicating with data. That turns out to be really engaging for people, really interesting, and pretty important to the world right now.
Guy Kawasaki: I think very few people understand the difference between mean, median, and mode, and those are very important. When you read an article in the Washington Post or the New York Times, and they put out a number there, you have got to understand: is it mean, median, or mode? And do you think most people understand that?
Jo Boaler: I think for most people, they’re taught them, all in one go, and they learn a method or a procedure, and then they forget and they can’t tell you what the difference is between them. So, again, it’s an example of something that’s important, but it’s taught in the wrong way, and most people can’t tell you as adults what those different measures mean to use “mean.”
I’ll just give a little plug here: I developed an online class last summer to help people learn about data science. There’s a little cartoon in it about mean, mode, and median which involves my dog, Alfie, which we made. And we try and show how to learn these in a way that is actually meaningful for people. Sorry about that.
Guy Kawasaki: That’s good. That’s good. Give us the gist of how you think math should be taught.
Jo Boaler: Hmm. I would start by saying that we have incredible neuroscience now that tells us about how our brains work with mathematics. And one of the key messages I try and get out to learners that neuroscience tells us is that everybody can learn maths. And, in fact, we’re developing and strengthening pathways all the time. We’re not born with them.
So that’s really important. And I think, however, you teach maths, you need to give kids that message, that these are old ideas of, “I wasn’t born with the right brain.” We have to get rid of that. But also, the neuroscientists tell us that when people engage with a maths problem, there are five different pathways in the brain that are activated.
Two of them are visual. So, we want kids – people–thinking visually, it’s really important, but also the best way to develop a mathematical brain is to have these pathways be communicating with each other. And so that kind of brain communication happens when we experience maths in different ways. So, if I were to do a problem with numbers but also draw that problem, that would cause a connection between two brain areas.
And if I was to build something to represent it, or move, or develop some music to represent it, these would all cause different areas of the brain to be activated. So, the approach to maths that we put out is one that’s very multi-dimensional. We get kids to experience it in different ways.
It’s also very creative because all of our problems are visual and, as people, how they see things, people find them much more interesting, and different students, different people, hordes of elementary teachers who’ve been traumatized by the maths approach they had in school, love this approach to maths.
And so, this is part of the reason we have a lot of people are coming to our site because we’re really offering a very different version of mathematics.
Guy Kawasaki: These methods, are they not applicable to learning of any subject or is this math specific?
Jo Boaler: Yeah, no, it’s true that they are applicable to the learning of anything. I really work hard to get this message out around maths because maths is the subject that needs this more than anything. It’s the most narrowly taught, the most procedurally taught, but it is true that you want to be engaging these multiple ways with anything.
Other teachers, humanities teachers, have tended to engage kids in different ways over the years, having kids act and write and do stories. But, maths has been so narrow that it really needs to get this approach.
Guy Kawasaki: You cite Carol Dweck several times in your book and she is one of my heroes and I’ll tell you…
Jo Boaler: Me too.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah! And, it’s obvious why she would be a hero because of her writing, her academic track record, and all that kind of stuff. I’ll tell you a little Carol Dweck story that really just kind of cemented my whole aura and awe of her.
So, believe it or not, she and I–this is in the days when we were still traveling–we use the same limousine driver. So, this limousine driver would pick me up, take me to the airport, pick her up, take her to the airport. And he died a few years ago. So, this was a small ceremony, a little community church in Palo Alto.
And this wasn’t Mem Chu, Steve Jobs, 2,000 people, body guards, Sting coming and all that. This was a little community church in Palo Alto, and Carol Dweck and her husband came to the funeral of our mutual limo driver. And that really just said so much to me.
Jo Boaler: That’s really great.
Guy Kawasaki: I love her mindset work. So, now going down the Carol Dweck path here, what are the negative consequences of being labeled “gifted”?
Jo Boaler: Many, actually, as it turns out, when we praise young children until they’re gifted and they’re smart, what they hear in those moments is, “Great! I’m gifted. Great. I’m smart.” But then later when they struggle or mess up on something, they start to think, “Hmm, I’m not gifted. I’m not smart.”
And in fact, some of Carol’s work has shown that when we praise kids, when they’re doing a task and say, “You are so smart,” immediately after that, they will choose an easier task because they want to hold on to that label.
So, she and I both do a lot of work to try and eradicate education of those ideas and labels, but of course they’re very embedded in an education system. We have a video on our website, which I really like, where I decided to ask lots of Stanford undergrads about their experiences of being labeled “gifted,” which of course they all have.
And each one of them steps to the mic and just talks about, “I was afraid to ask questions. I was afraid to take a risk.” It’s really a powerful film. And then we get these fourth graders to come to the mic who were all in a school that doesn’t use those labels. And they’re also really interesting to listen to, and they are quite clear that it’s not good to praise people for being smart.
But they’ve never been praised for being smart, and they have a wholly different outlook on their lives than these Stanford undergrads. So yeah, there’s so much damage to these fixed labels, but they’re still very commonly used.
Guy Kawasaki: So instead of saying your child is “gifted” or “smart,” what do you praise them for?
Jo Boaler: So, we can still praise our kids, but what we should praise them for is things they’ve done rather than things about them as a person. So, it’s fine to praise them and say, “That’s fantastic work you’ve done,” “That’s really lovely,” “creative,” “great ideas,” without saying that “you’re smart” label.
We know as well that those labels are much more readily applied to some people in the population–Men more than women; White people more than people of color.
So, there’s just a lot inside those notions that we need to work against.
Guy Kawasaki: Are there any limits or downsides to a growth mindset?
Jo Boaler: I would say that, there’s been quite a lot of criticism of mindset. And to me…
Guy Kawasaki: You mean Mindset, the book or mindset the concept?
Jo Boaler: The theories, the concepts. There are people who try and do research to show it doesn’t work, but this is what I think about that: to really take on mindset ideas, it’s not just about saying words to people. As an educator, you need to infuse it through your teaching.
So, you can’t say to kids, “You can learn anything and mistakes are really valuable” and “Lean into struggle,” and then give them a time test where they’re marked down for any mistake they make and teach in a very narrow way so they cannot see how they can achieve.
So, we find that when mindset is infused into teaching, and my book, Limitless Mind, has lots of examples of that. It’s transformative. But some people give kids mindset messages then everything goes on the same.
The teaching is the same; the testing is the same; and they don’t find it makes much difference. The kids don’t improve, and then they publish those studies. And I think that’s where the critique of mindset comes. People will say, “you’re asking in kids to change without changing the system.”
And our messaging is the opposite of that, our messaging is, “we need to change the system. We need to change teaching in schools to embed these messages in what we do.” So, I can see where that critique has come from. But I think that’s people not really understanding how mindset works.
If you actually talk to Carol and other people, they’ll talk about how do you enact a mindset approach? It’s not just saying words to kids and then finding it doesn’t do much.
Guy Kawasaki: If you’re a mindset believer–a Dweck and Boaler believer–do you say, “Okay, so this is easy for you, but I want to focus on what comes hard”? Or do you say, “Run with your strengths”? Or do you say, “Minimize your…”?
Jo Boaler: Yeah, good question. It does turn out that we see certain students say, or children who seem to find things easier, and I think we have too much in the past said, “Okay that’s your strength go with that.” We can recognize people that have strengths and weaknesses, but there’s so much possibility to develop in those areas that people regard as weak, that we shouldn’t really give that message.
It used to be believed that, “Okay, you’re weak at that. You don’t have the right kind of brain.” Now we know you may be weak at that now and your brain may not be doing well in that area, but you can develop it and change it.” So, I think it does have implications for that message.
I know when I’ve been presenting to adult audiences around my book, I’ve had a number of people from workplaces say, “Oh, we’ve always divided our employees into their strengths and weaknesses. Are you saying we should stop that and we can have people develop in other areas?” And I say that, “Yeah, that is what I’m saying.”
Guy Kawasaki: You could almost make the case that, for college admissions, you should just take your applicant pool and randomly select people.
Jo Boaler: Almost. Or select people on whether they have a growth mindset and whether they’re willing to approach problems with flexibility and creativity instead of selecting people who have memorized—really, that’s what we select on at the moment.
Guy Kawasaki: And, how would you test for that in a college app?
Jo Boaler: These are the really big and important questions for our time. We know that there’s different kinds of knowledge is important, creative, flexible mindset. How do you test for that large scale? Because nobody’s really developed that yet.
Certainly, you can sit down with people and see who has a growth mindset and measure for that, but can you do that on a really large scale way? I think you can, but I don’t think many people are investing in trying to figure that out.
Guy Kawasaki: If we could just back up for 10 seconds there. So, you said it so smoothly, you can just sit down with someone and tell if they have a growth mindset. Oh…how? I don’t think it’s that easy. How do you do that?
Jo Boaler: In my own work, when I teach classrooms of kids or when I work with people in the center that I lead, I see. I certainly see people who have a fixed mindset and I see that when something hard comes along.
It’s really how do people deal with situations where something goes wrong, or they fail, or they’re struggling, that’s when you see what kind of mindset they have. Doesn’t really come out when everything is going really well, but it comes out in those, more difficult, times.
So, I guess I would bring people in and give them something really hard to do.
Guy Kawasaki: And how would you distinguish if a person finds something really hard or simply not interesting?
Jo Boaler: If somebody approached a task that we designed by their–if their response to it was, “I’m not interested in this. What? Are we really going to jump into this?” That would be an interesting variable I would take note of as well. This reminds me, actually, with a story I heard Carol tells once of how this whole mindset research started.
She said that she was interviewing young children and giving them difficult tasks to do. And a lot of the kids were like, “Oh, that’s difficult,” and sort of turning away. And, this one boy came in and said, “Oh, I can’t do this. Fantastic! I’m really excited to try and figure it out,” and she was really struck by the difference.
And that was really what started her on this whole decades of research into mindset. I see that in my–the people I work with–my doctoral students, staff. I see that when something comes up that’s difficult, or maybe we suddenly realized we need some new software, we need to learn some new software to do something.
And there are some of the people who will always say, “I’ll learn that,” “I’ll do that.” “I’m willing to take that on,” and others who back off. I think in those moments, that’s mindset that you see.
Guy Kawasaki: These are your doctoral students. Do they not know you well enough to think that that’s a dumb answer for you?
Jo Boaler: Sometimes it takes a while.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay.
Jo Boaler: Maybe when they’re leaving, they know that.
Guy Kawasaki: Send them over to the psych department. I read a very interesting part of the book about grit and Angela Duckworth. And you point out, maybe problems or– problem is too strong a word, but you brought out some subtlety about this– who argues against grit, right? But you talk about the current communication of grit is you have to focus on something and just give it your all, and also, that it is a solo activity. So, can you address those two issues that grit believers like me need to be cognizant of?
Jo Boaler: Those are two issues, I think with the whole notion of grit, certainly we can all agree that having somebody, I don’t know, maybe they want to be a professional athlete, they’re really going to have to be gritty. I’ve lived around professional athletes, and they have to really focus on that and work for it. Great.
But the problems with that lens, I think, one is, it does suggest that this is an individual attribute that you develop, whereas most people who are successful, including athletes, do so as a part of lots of work with other people, teams, coaches, others. But the other problem I think, is particularly when it’s used in the development of young children.
If, you know, we’re communicating to these young people, “choose your passion, and be gritty and go for it,” nobody knows what those kids are going to really be fulfilled by, and we don’t want them to choose one thing and go for it, really, at a young age or at any age in school. You have to be really sure and have had a lot of life experiences to make decisions like that. Those are just kind of some cautions I guess I have around it’s overuse.
Guy Kawasaki: You would think if you asked children to pick something and focus on it and show your grit, they would pick the easiest thing, right? They wouldn’t–it would be counterintuitive for them to think “I’m going to pick something that I suck at because…”
Jo Boaler: That I’m not very good at. Yeah.
Guy Kawasaki: …which might be math, and the rest is history.
Jo Boaler: A lot of kids go forward in subjects that they’re good at, and so many people choose maths because they were good at it in school. And then they get to college, and they realize they’re surrounded by all of these other people who are good at it and they sort of lose their identity for it.
And they start to question, “why did I ever choose this subject?” And they didn’t choose it because they loved it or because of all the great things they could do with it. They chose it because it was their best subject, and that can cause problems.
Guy Kawasaki: You also mentioned a very interesting theory in your book that the question of whether happiness causes success, or success causes happiness. So, I want you to explain to me how happiness can cause success.
Jo Boaler: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting to me, and the longer I do this research at Stanford, just the numb–the amount of evidence we have, that what you believe will change your learning. It will change your interactions with people. Some of the studies I quoted that I think are incredible.
Finding that, people who are more positive about the exercise they do are actually healthier than the people who do the exact same amount of exercise but they don’t really think of it as particularly healthy. Hugely healthier on a range of measures, and so how you perceive your reality does actually– it changes your health.
It changes your learning, and it changes your happiness. And it changes your success from that. It used to be believed that these parts of your life functioned in different parts of the brain. Like, you had an area of your brain that was all cognitive and you had an area of your brain that was emotion and caused you to be happy.
And now they know that they’re complexly interrelated. And, for example, those who feel positively actually have better development in their brain, so this is our happiness and positivity leads to success– actually causes your brain to function differently. And so, it’s probably not surprising, that we see the most successful people as the people are having that positive outlook.
Guy Kawasaki: You can’t stand up in front of a classroom and say, “okay, you need to be happy to be successful.” What’s the action item here?
Jo Boaler: I think what is actionable is getting people to change their mindset, and we have a lot of experience of doing that and a lot of evidence that once people see how the brain works and they get this information that Carol shares, that I share, that other people do, they start to change. They start to change how they think about themselves.
So, they go through a process of developing a growth mindset, and that changes–how they interact with things. It brings about more positive outcomes in their lives. So, I feel, I agree, you can’t just say, “Be happy,” but, although I think there’s a song like that…
Guy Kawasaki: Don’t worry.
Jo Boaler: But you can change people’s mindset and a lot that will cause more happiness in their lives.
Guy Kawasaki: Of all the studies you cite in the book, the one that I found the most interesting, and the first one I told my wife about, was the study about the math students or the black students at Cal were dropping out because of poor math performance and the Asians were doing well and nobody dropped out.
So, can you just tell that story, because that is a fantastic story.
Jo Boaler: Yeah, this comes from the work of Uri Treisman, and he’s a maths professor. He’s actually at UT Austin now, but he was at Berkeley. And he–while he was at Berkeley–he noticed large-scale failure in calculus. And because of that, many people dropped out of the college and he looked into that and found that there was this big racial difference.
A lot of black students were dropping out and unsuccessful, and it was actually the Chinese-American students who are hugely successful. So interestingly, he asked the faculty, “why do you think this apparent cultural difference is happening?” And they all came out with a range of things, all of which were wrong.
So, they were saying, “Oh, they came in with weaker preparation” or they had lots of different theories, but it turned out there was really one difference between these two cultural groups which was: the Chinese-American students work together.
They were in the dining halls, working on math problems. They were in the dormitories doing math problems together. Whereas the African-American students were doing math problems on their own, in a dormitory room at night, struggling with it and thinking, “I’m not a maths person. I might as well drop out.”
And so, they instigated workshops and they offered them, particularly to students who’d been unsuccessful, but they just offered students to come in and do maths together.
They worked on the problems that normally problems in class and, within, I think it was, year, the failure rate of African-American students drop to zero, and within two years they were outperforming the Chinese-American students. Really powerful. And that approach has now I think being used in hundreds of different maths departments–still not enough though, there’s still many more that need to take that approach.
Guy Kawasaki: And in a pandemic where maybe nobody’s working together in dorms, what do we do now?
Jo Boaler: There are ways of working together, still connecting online, but I think that probably has pushed work to be more individualized. I have two teenage daughters and I don’t think they’re connecting over ideas as much as they were. I feel bad for my youngest. She’s a freshman in high school and doesn’t even know anybody to connect with.
So, whereas, in the past, if she was stuck on something, she would text one of her friends and they would figure it out together. She doesn’t have anyone to text now. So, I do think there’s definitely been some less connecting during the pandemic, sadly.
Guy Kawasaki: I read your discussion of Milgram. What the hell was that about? I don’t understand that at all.
Jo Boaler: Hmm. Yeah, that was, that was a pretty rough time of my life. So, there are these–I’m just going to say it – old, white male math professors who had for a number of years been trying to keep math the way it’s always been: sitting in rows, listening to a teacher lecture.
So, then I came along, I start at Stanford and I have this research that shows that, actually, when you teach differently and kids work together, then inequities get reduced and it’s a much more equitable approach.
So, they didn’t like that message. And originally, I was called to Milgram’s office when he told me not to share my research in America. So, I was like, “that’s really odd.” And I left his office. I told my Dean, and he was not happy at all about that.
But I carried on. So, I then did another study. It was funded by NSF; same results that the kids who had this different approach did better. So, they basically set out to squash this research, and they did that by accusing me of academic misconduct, which is a very serious claim and can end researchers’ careers.
And Stanford was forced by law to investigate. I had to give them all of my data. They found no evidence at all, and they just said, “we’re not even continuing this– we’re closing that case.” Unfortunately, Milgram and his friends then decided to publish their claims on the internet. And I had been advised to ignore it.
So, for some years I ignored it. I was actually pretty miffed about this whole experience, and I moved back to England at that time because I just was unimpressed. And, I went back to England, tried to ignore it, but saw that his words were getting quite a lot of attention. So, I decided to come back to Stanford and fight it.
And I came back to Stanford. I had then got a new dean who was amazing. His name is Claude Steele, and he himself does a lot of work in equity. And he looked at what Milgram and others had written about me, and he said, “This cannot be. This is awful. We have to do something about this.” And he encouraged me to just publish on the internet what they had done, what they’d said.
So, I did that. I stayed in one night. I remember it clearly because it was the night of the faculty party that I didn’t go to. They’re never very wild events, but I didn’t go to it. And instead I hit “send” and published this website, and I also put it on Twitter, and it was the day I joined Twitter. I’d never experienced it before, I just joined, and I put it linked to this and it went viral.
It was like incredible. I was getting calls from reporters all weekend. And, what was amazing about that was the outpouring of support. I got about a hundred letters from other women in academic departments, science departments, science and maths, all talking about how that experience some form of what I call “academic bullying.”
So, it was actually a really a great thing. I originally–when they first accused me of academic misconduct–I kind of withdrew inwards. I went back to England. I tried to forget it, but it was really coming back to Stanford and going public that changed everything and helped me.
Nowadays people say to me, my friends say I should send Milgram flowers because it actually got more people coming to our work, and a number of people sort of looked at what I did and they had themselves experience a lot of pressure and push back against change.
And, were kind of inspired by it. Like, “we can start and up to these bullies.” So, I do think more people have come to us because of it. And the long–in the long term, it was pretty horrible at the time, but maybe I should send him flowers.
Guy Kawasaki: Maybe, this is a question that is beyond the scope of this episode, but what is it about men that they…
Jo Boaler: Yeah, that’s a good question. I share this message on Twitter, on social media, in talks, of everyone can learn. And, I have to say that nearly all the pushback I get is from white men. And…why is that?
Guy Kawasaki: Why is that? Exactly.
Jo Boaler: It is really interesting to me, and it’s a very clear pattern. So now I… kind of expect it and I just, it just confirms the pattern that’s–and obviously, it’s not all white men. There are certainly a lot of white men who are really open to new ideas and really receptive, but it is interesting that that’s where the opposition comes from.
Guy Kawasaki: But you don’t have an explanation.
Jo Boaler: I guess the one explanation would be: they’ve been at the top of the system. They’ve been the one benefiting from the system we have in place, so when people come along saying, “let’s change it,” they’re not too thrilled about that.
There are people but don’t like the message that anyone can learn, particularly high-achieving maths people because they’ve done well. For some reason, they like the idea that they were just born that way. I didn’t know why they like that idea, but it’s part of their identity they’ve built up.
Guy Kawasaki: I would say that in addition to the growth versus fixed mindset, you can make the case that there is a mindset that life is a zero- sum game, or it’s not a zero-sum game. And if you believe it’s a zero-sum game, some other person’s success in math is going to take away from yours.
Jo Boaler: Right, right.
Guy Kawasaki: What a bunch of pathetic losers. So, I’m going to ask you a quick series of quick pragmatic questions, and then you’ll be rid of me. Okay. So, the consequences of the California math framework: What does it mean to people?
Jo Boaler: I hope it means a lot. I’m one of five writers of the new maths framework in California. It’s coming out as policy in the fall. It’s currently available for public comments, and we’re really trying to change maths for kids and recommend that we stop labeling students, we encourage all students to go forward.
That maths is a much more multidimensional subject and kids can take data science or other things. But that framework is a set of recommendations. It will be taken on by a lot of the county offices and the districts and used in their teaching. And in that way, I think it will bring about great change, but we need other things to change around it.
And a top one for me is the Common Core which was brought into effect more than ten years ago now, badly needs updating.
Guy Kawasaki: What’s wrong with it?
Jo Boaler: It’s that the high school curriculum, and particularly mathematics, it may surprise you if I tell you that the content in that curriculum was actually put into the curriculum in the 1800s and has not changed. So, that’s one thing that’s wrong with it.
It’s… archaic. It really is. And kids are going through these long calculations by hand; no technology. They will never do that again, ever. Not in a workplace, not anywhere. So, why are we putting them through this pain?
So yeah, we really need to update it. I’m working on another project for the state of California at the moment where they’ve–they’re recognizing that teachers have lost time, and they asked me to identify more critical things and less critical things.
And so, we’re releasing that in May and I’m kind of excited about that. We’ve taken the common core and we’ve elevated some things that we think are really important. Maybe that will help teachers alongside this framework change.
Guy Kawasaki: Let’s say you’re a parent and you’re listening to this. You read your book. And now you think, “okay, I want to change this.” So, what does a parent do? Does a parent work at the classroom level, the school level, the district level, the state level, or the federal level? What does a parent do?
Jo Boaler: Great question. I think all of those levels can bring about change and are really important. So, I would say parents can be powerful and if they go and talk to schools and teachers, share with them things like our resources on our website, which are all free, or books and other things and help them understand.
Often when teachers do teach in a very narrow way, it’s because they’ve never known anything different. Nobody’s ever invested time in helping them learn new things. And that’s what they learned in school.
So, I think it’s really worthwhile helping teachers learn. And parents can be helpful in that if they supportively give advice to schools and others. Also work at the higher policy levels. That’s also can be really beneficial. We need people to stand up and say, “there’s something wrong in the teaching of maths in this country.” And that will help us bring about changes, I think.
Guy Kawasaki: What do you do if–if you are a person listening to this and you’ve been labeled a slow learner, poor in math, something like that. What do you do? A person, what does a person…
Jo Boaler: That is probably a lot of people who are listening. I would say, read my book Limitless Mind, and that would be a good first step because a lot of people I interviewed were those people who had been told as children that they couldn’t do maths. And, now have anxiety when they hear kitchen clock timers because they were made to do maths at speed with timed clocks.
You need to move on from that because those messages are incorrect, and you can do maths, and you can learn actually whatever you want to learn. Whenever scientists try and find a limit, they can’t find any. So, I think it’s really important that people get to raise those bad experiences and experience things in a different way.
Guy Kawasaki: This podcast is sponsored by the reMarkable Tablet company. And now, here comes the reMarkable Tablet question about best and deepest thinking. This time, the answers from Dr. Jo Boaler–Math education professor and evangelist.
Jo Boaler: I often do my best thinking in a way that is no longer available, not currently available to me, which is: I love to swim. Before the pandemic, I swam pretty much every morning, and often I would have my best ideas when I was in the pool. It’s really interesting to me that that happens. I think maybe just because my mind is more clear and I’m not trying to do twelve things.
I have seen research that people have their best ideas and thoughts like when they’re on a walk or doing something away from the workplace. And I think that’s definitely true for me. I also, I don’t know why this is, but I’m definitely kind of inspired by lovely views–The ocean, trees.
Like, whenever I get into a work environment, I have to find a nice window. I was never one of those people who could sit in the library at college with no windows and get things done. I would always have to take my books and go and sit outside. So, these are the things that helped me.
Guy Kawasaki: What is the optimal way to retire?
Jo Boaler: Mm. I think we are starting to learn that the worst thing to do for your brain is retire from work. And, if you want to keep an active brain, which of course, it’s very important as we get older, then keeping your brain active is a very important part of that. They have found that even people in retirement homes, so older people, experienced brain growth when they do something new.
So, if you’re not an artist, but you take an art class, that’s going to give you a lot of brain growth or, you know, if you, if you’re not a musician, but you learn to play a musical instrument, or maybe you learn a language, but you’re really bad at languages, that would be me, that will give you a great deal of brain activity and brain growth.
So just keeping active, keeping your brain active. You can of course retire from your job, particularly if it’s not very inspiring, but then do something else with your brain or else those pathways will just fade away.
Guy Kawasaki: Are you advocating that crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good or is that a gimmick?
Jo Boaler: They can be, they can be, but not if you’ve done them your whole life, then you’re treading those same pathways in your brain that you’ve trodden and lots and lots of times. Then if, you’ve done Sudoku and crosswords all your life, you probably better learning to paint.
Guy Kawasaki: This is all about neuro-plasticity.
Jo Boaler: Indeed.
Guy Kawasaki: And my final question for you, as a parent who is guilty of this. So, as my kids have taken math, I have very mixed emotions because I have seen them do it, and frankly, I think it makes perfect sense, but you tell me if this is good or bad.
So, let’s say you’re doing simple algebra or subtraction or something like that, all right. You get your phone and you say, “Siri, what is 2,585 divided by 60?” And Siri gives you the answer. Is that good or bad?
Jo Boaler: I would say that is exactly what you should be doing because that technology is available, and why wouldn’t you do that? And I think we should only be asking questions of kids that cannot be solved by a computer or a calculator. I mean, if you’re asking deeper questions that involve reasoning and making sense of things, you can’t just ask Siri to do it for you. So, if your kids can do all of their homework by asking Siri, I would say that the questions need to be changed and they’re not good questions. We do want to be able to develop what we call “number sense”–having a good sense of numbers, being able to use numbers. And, but I would say it’s also a great skill to know when to ask Siri to do something for you and move on to the more complicated things.
Guy Kawasaki: So, by extension, if you had to write an essay, and you dictated it to some computer program and that transcribed it, that’s okay?
Jo Boaler: Yeah, absolutely.
Guy Kawasaki: You’ve relieved such a burden from me. Thank you so much. Because I don’t know what’s cheating anymore, you know? There’s never a point in your life where you’re not going to use a calculator or something like that and you’re going to do long division.
Jo Boaler: It’s kind of funny because, I don’t know if this was true when you were growing up, but when I was growing up, maths teachers used to say, “you have to learn to calculate because you will not walk around in life with a calculator in your hand,” but hey, we’re now walking around in life with calculators in our hands.
Guy Kawasaki: So, now I lied. I have one more. I have one more question because you brought up the topic of calculators. This is a lightning kind of lightning question. So, algebraic notation or reverse Polish notation?
Jo Boaler: What’s reverse Polish notation?
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, my God. Reverse Polish notation is the Hewlett-Packard calculator where you put two enter two times opposed to two times two equals.
Jo Boaler: Oh…
Guy Kawasaki: You never heard of reverse Polish notation?
Jo Boaler: I haven’t. No, maybe it’s my British upbringing.
Guy Kawasaki: So, I can say that I taught Jo Boaler something about math?
Jo Boaler: Yes! In fact, I’m going to go look it up and learn about it. Reverse Polish, and, why Polish? Where do, where…?
Guy Kawasaki: I don’t know. I don’t know. Who knows. It’s–it’s RPN notation, reverse Polish notation. I think
Jo Boaler: I am looking at right now. There it is.
Guy Kawasaki: There’s a theoretical advantage that once you get that intermediate answer, you can immediately do something to it, as opposed to, “what do you do with the answer,” then you have to put in the times sign… I don’t know.
Jo Boaler: Interesting. Yeah. Operators proceed that operands. Hm.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, this is a high point of my life, that…
Jo Boaler: I’m going to go and read about this. This does sound really interesting.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of remarkable people with Dr. Jo Boaler. Truly, she is an evangelist. Truly, she’s going to change how math is taught. I can’t wait for this to happen.
My name is Guy Kawasaki. This is the remarkable people podcast. My thanks to two Remarkable People Evangelists: Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick. All the best to you.
All the best to you, and I hope you personify the growth mindset. Mahalo and Aloha!