Shifting the Burden and Charging On

Yesterday, Jonathan Teghtmeyer, a prominent figure in the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the teachers’ union in Alberta, Canada), tweeted a link to an edweek.org editorial by Jo Boaler.

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I responded by suggesting that we shouldn’t take such claims about math anxiety too seriously, given that this is an opinion piece by a scholar who makes her living on the theory of “math anxiety,” and who has since been largely discredited by her own colleagues at Stanford, after her Railside research was found to be, at best, poorly administered and, at worst, falsified. I was accused of an ad hominem attack. With the limitations of 140 characters, I certainly did seem to be guilty of the ad hominem attack, so I tried to clarify by pointing out that the studies she cited in the piece are questionable. Apparently, it now falls on me to explain.

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I resent the position in which I now find myself. Mr. Teghtmeyer, a representative of teachers in Alberta, a group to which I belong, can apparently openly cite questionable and controversial opinions and I, a teacher who feels compelled to remain anonymous due to my contrarian views and the retaliation I fear, must now defend the practices that have historically propelled Alberta to the top of international education rankings, against unproven, untested, theoretical claims for a new way forward. Forgive me, but the onus is on YOU, Mr. Teghtmeyer, to prove that a CHANGE in traditional methods will produce improved results. But that’s not how the game is played. Instead, I’m wasting my Sunday going through an explanation of why you should think twice before you, as a representative of teachers in Alberta, defend a highly arguable claim. I could ignore all of this, but I’m particularly annoyed, so here goes . . .

I’m not especially vocal about the math debate here in Alberta, largely because I’m not a math teacher. However, this debate crosses curricular lines and it’s representative of a more philosophical and pedagogical impetus. Further, while some people may claim to be math specialists, thus having more to say about the issue than I, many teachers in Alberta teach subjects outside their area of specialization, so maybe I have a right to speak?

Jo Boaler is a highly controversial figure in the field of math teaching and pedagogy. This is not to disparage her, only to report some facts about her research. I think it’s relevant, given that Mr. Teghtmeyer’s position on the new timed section of the PAT hinges on such research, based on the notion that timed tests in math result in anxiety for students. Boaler’s premise is further contingent on a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, one which has caused her some professional problems. For some perspectives on Boaler and the theory of math “anxiety,” see here, here, here, and here.

As for the edweek.org editorial, which is largely comprised of Boaler’s own opinions, she does cite three other sources that I deem questionable. I intend to explain (in more than 140 characters) to Mr. Teghtmeyer, and anyone else who may be interested, why this is the case.

The first link Boaler cites is an article from Current Directions in Psychological Science (Cleveland State University, 2002) by Mark Ashcraft. In this piece, Ashcraft admits that “there has been no thorough empirical work on the origins or causes of math anxiety,” and that, while traditional classroom methods” are risk factors for math anxiety,” this conclusion is “yet undocumented,” although he is determined that the condition exists. He also cites his “participants’ anecdotal (my emphasis) reports” of public embarrassment in math class. Nowhere does the article reference study size, or controls and variables. In fact, it seems to quite openly be a summary of anecdotal reports of people with an already-decided conclusion that they struggle with math and have faced anxiety. Even in the abstract, although Ashcraft claims that “some teaching styles are implicated as risk factors,” he admits that research is needed “on the origins of math anxiety.”

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This is questionable, then, because we don’t know exactly how the “research” was conducted, and the article itself can offer no clear conclusions about the sources of math “anxiety,” if such a condition even exists.

The second source Boaler cites is from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, although the page is not found when the link is followed. I found what I believe to be the article, or a comparable study related to math anxiety, here. The main problem with this piece is, again, that no methods are divulged. We don’t know the study size, nor the controls, nor the variables. What we do know is that the article is heavily self-referenced, citing its own authors in other “studies,” a well-known tactic of academics who have a dodgy foundational premise. The piece also cites Boaler’s third and final source from the edweek.org editorial, titled “The Neurodevelopmental Basis of Math Anxiety,” by Young, Wu, and Menon, a paper co-authored by Boaler’s own colleagues at Stanford, and behind a paywall.

With respect to this third and final source cited by Boaler in the edweek.org editorial, I found what I believe to be a free version of the paper here. The questionable aspect of this source is that it appears to be the basis for the previous citation, the Maloney and Beilock piece. Whenever a limited number of papers are cited in a circular manner, it should signal a red flag. In its references, this paper also cites the other two aforementioned papers. Further, Young et. al. claim that the effects of math anxiety are “unrelated to general anxiety, working memory, or reading ability,” a claim that is patently contradicted by the Ashcraft article, which suggests that math anxiety “compromises the activities of working memory, and hence should disrupt performance on any math task that relies on working memory.” Lastly, the Young et. al. article is the only one that provides information regarding its methods. Under that heading, we find that the study involved 46 participants, which can hardly provide conclusive results. In the final analysis, the Young et. al. paper is primarily a neurological study, largely concerned with fMRI mapping, and does not, itself, purport to identify any specific causes of math anxiety, only to suggest that the condition exists.

So . . . this is why I would suggest that the “studies” Boaler, a contentious enough figure in her own right, cites in her opinion piece are questionable. For a concise approach to evaluating educational research, Greg Ashman outlines a useful approach here.

Mr. Teghtmeyer seems to be against the introduction of a timed math fact component on the Grade 6 PAT here in Alberta. He uses the same argument as opponents of the Phonics Check in the U.K. These arguments are often clouded by the premise that teachers are already teaching math facts (or phonics, in the case of the U.K.), and that teachers can use any methods they deem fit. However, that’s not the case in reality. The truth is that the curriculum itself is aligned with a constructivist philosophy in which foundational knowledge is sacrificed in favour of unsubstantiated claims for “skills” and “understanding.” One can hardly blame parents and those with vested interests in education for trying to implement a system of checks and balances, be they explicit directions in programs of study, components of a PAT, or a significant weighting for diploma exams. They have legitimate concerns, and the onus should be on proponents of change to justify their claims.

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