This Isn’t Just About Academic Disagreement; It’s About Bullying

How should we teach math in American schools?

That’s a simple question with no easy answer.

Some say memorization and constant drilling is the key. (e.g. Memorize the times table, learn the FOIL method in algebra, do the shortcut to calculating a derivative in Calculus, figure out how to multiply fractions and then do the same kind of problem 213781 times, etc.) I’m sure a lot of you learned math that way. I did for a good part of my education, too.

Others say that method only leads to students who think they can do math but who don’t really understand it. They might be able to pass a class but they can’t do any sort of higher-level thinking. They go “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

This group’s alternative suggestion is very popular in the math world right now. It’s the basis of the Common Core curriculum (PDF) many states are now adapting. It’s a theory that says kids are better off working on a couple of long problems than several short ones. It’s a theory that tries to get kids to stop asking, “When are we ever going to use this in life?” by creating relevant problems instead of obviously contrived ones. It’s a theory that says there’s not always one right way to get an answer even if there’s only one right answer and we ought to explore several of them. It’s a theory that encourages students to talk through the methods they used to solve a problem with their classmates to get a better understanding of the subject.

(You can take a wild guess as to which theory I support.)

This is also the theory espoused by Dr. Jo Boaler, a professor and researcher of mathematics education at Stanford University and the author of the excellent book What’s Math Got to Do with It?: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject:

Jo Boaler

Boaler has spent years researching what works and what doesn’t in math classrooms, in America and abroad. She has published many peer-reviewed papers on the subjects of gender and racial equality when it comes to math education. She’s well respected in the field.

And she’s the subject of harassment in the academic community.

This goes well beyond disagreements with her ideas. We’re talking about people trying to destroy her academic credentials because they don’t like what she represents: A threat to the old way of doing things.

Boaler revealed the depths of the bullying on her website today:

Since joining the faculty of Stanford University in 1998 I have experienced fierce personal and professional attacks from two mathematicians — James Milgram (Stanford, retired) and Wayne Bishop (CSU, Northridge). Milgram and Bishop are opposed to reforms of mathematics teaching and support the continuation of a model in which students learn mathematics without engaging in realistic problems or discussing mathematical methods. They are, of course, entitled to this opinion, and there has been an ongoing, spirited academic debate about mathematics learning for a number of years. But Milgram and Bishop have gone beyond the bounds of reasoned discourse in a campaign to systematically suppress empirical evidence that contradicts their stance. Academic disagreement is an inevitable consequence of academic freedom, and I welcome it. However, responsible disagreement and academic bullying are not the same thing. Milgram and Bishop have engaged in a range of tactics to discredit me and damage my work which I have now decided to make public.

What sort of things are Milgram and Bishop doing? They tried to block her from becoming a professor at the school in 2010. They’re saying that she fabricated some of her research, a claim that was investigated and found to be untrue. They all-but-spelled out some of her research subjects — students and teachers and their schools — despite the fact that confidentiality is of the utmost importance in these studies. They wrote a paper (PDF) (that was never peer-reviewed or published) in order to discredit her work.

Again, Stanford officials looked at their claims years ago and found them to be utterly baseless. Yet, they persist on spreading the rumors, anyway.

Who knew character assassination was the way researchers hammered out their differences? And at such a great school, no less?! It’d be shocking if it weren’t so sad.

For now, there’s been no response from Milgram or Bishop. But I hope Boaler comes out of this unscathed, able to continue her important research without the distraction of “colleagues” hellbent on discrediting her work. Like all good researchers, she’s up for a spirited debate on the issues and seems more than willing to engage her detractors. What she’s having to respond to, though, is an attack on her character instead of her theories. That type of defamation has no place in academia.

(via Dan Meyer)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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