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 editorial by Jo Boaler.


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.


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 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.”


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 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 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.


5 thoughts on “Shifting the Burden and Charging On

  1. Well said. Indeed it is NOT your job to prove why you’re right, when the “establishment” changes how educational standards should be met. Rather, each change needs to be scrutinized and tested rigorously before being implemented…something that Mr. Teghtmeyer fails to acknowledge.

    It’s also rather poisonous for him to chastise teachers who choose to use “Mad Minutes” to help kids in their math lessons when the ATA has declared that they support their membership to use whatever learning strategies they wish. This is yet one more illustration about how those involved in the ed establishment like to chastise anyone for choosing more straightforward proven methods in math class. Shame on him! If he was truly a professional, he would recognize good teaching strategies and support members rather than reprimand them publicly.

    As for his inaccurate claims surrounding math anxiety…that right there should indicate why our education system is in such tatters. Parents, be forewarned: get your kids in Kumon. They’ll need it.


  2. I provide the following link for two reasons: Availability (free) of a course designed to look at what some of the latest replicate-able research tells us, and how that could be applied across learning dimensions. The potential to remove practitioner blindspots around the effectiveness of using a spectrum of methodologies/thinking strategies/application models.


  3. I cannot speak to the validity of the three pieces of evidence referenced by the Boaler piece. I have read some of Sian L. Beilock’s other work and- from my limited perspective- it seems quite sound. Also, the Wu paper doesn’t say anywhere that timed practice causes math anxiety. One thing that seemed very obvious to me was that nothing I read in these links seemed to even remotely support Boaler’s assertion that: “… giving young children timed math tests-is one of the clearest ways schools damage children.” Or Jonathan Teghtmeyer’s assertion that: “It simply exacerbates the test and math anxiety that exists for far too many students. A pressure test of basic number facts like this is regressive and counterproductive toward achieving the goal of ensuring that students have strong mental math and numeracy skills.”

    Remember, we are talking about 15 minutes of a timed test given after 6 years of schooling… which doesn’t affect their future at all. The piece from Beilock (which Boaler used as support) even says: “Math anxiety is a multifaceted phenomenon that arises due to a combination of cognitive predispositions, as well as exposure to negative attitudes about mathematics (e.g., Maloney & Beilock, 2012; Wang et al., 2014). Importantly, the foundations for math anxiety are likely laid early in children’s learning (most likely even before formal schooling).
    Now, to be fair to Teghtmeyer, he never says that timed practice will cause math anxiety but says that it “…simply exacerbates the test and math anxiety”. But I am curious about the idea that the ATA (as per it’s official publications) believes that its members have the physiological scalpels to teach children to be collaborative, creative, have an entrepreneurial mindset and to think critically but don’t have the ability- after 6 years of education- to prepare a student to not get too fussed over 15Min of timed performance? Teghtmeyer and the ATA for whom he speaks might want to square this circle.
    It seems to me, that the concept of Math Anxiety is a well-researched idea. There was a great literature review recently published called “Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years?” which I add as a support for the discussion (it is a great read).

    Again, no evidence that timed tests cause Math Anxiety but that the stress of performance- which in the literature seems to equate to “doing math” -can cause those who have math anxiety distress. As described this would also include Teghtmeyer’s preferred method of subjecting students to “Authentic stress is created by presenting students with problems and challenges where it’s not immediately clear how to get the answer.” And that “…I’m worried it will drive bad practices in schools, like the widespread reintroduction of “mad minutes,” which do nothing to challenge strong students while simultaneously doing nothing to help the students who need it the most.”
    This seems to be completely contradicted by: “Effects favoring speeded over nonspeeded practice on simple arithmetic (and complex calculations) were substantial, and results showed that the advantage for speeded over nonspeeded practice may occur when students are helped to compensate for the demands on reasoning ability, which an instructional focus on number knowledge creates. At the same time, we found no evidence that speeded practice inhibits development of number knowledge or word-problem skill, despite the fact that rote responding was involved in speeded practice. In fact, both number knowledge tutoring conditions produced comparable number knowledge and word-problem learning, which was superior to at-risk control students” (Fuchs et al)

    Now, the most mind boggling thing is that I got this link from Daniel Ansari whose name might be recognizable because his work is referenced quite a few times in both the Beilock paper (cited by Boaler) and the literature review. Ansari wrote a piece in the CEA where he says that: “Moreover, recent research by Lynne Fuchs and colleagues at Vanderbilt University has demonstrated that speeded practice can lead to larger student gains in arithmetic compared to nonspeeded practice, and that such practice can be particularly useful for low-achieving students in overcoming their math reasoning difficulties. Thus speeded practice is beneficial, when combined with other approaches.” (Emphasis mine)

    Now, when a mere English teacher (judging by Teghtmeyer’s response to you) and a mere parent (I am just anticipating that one) can show that the tweeted evidence and editorial are not just not supported by the evidence presented but are directly contradicted by the researchers themselves, one has to wonder where the ATA is getting its advice from? I am not on twitter but, if I was, I would ask him (and by extension the ATA since it has him as it’s spokesman) does the ATA not have the capacity to inform it’s members of the actual evidence of Math Anxiety and how it can be remediated… Or does it not really care what the evidence actually says?

    Liked by 1 person

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