Dehumanizing Math Educators: The Jo Boaler Story You Don’t Know

My transition to stop writing anything related to mathematics began with the release of my final math book, Chasing Rabbits: A Curious Guide to a Lifetime of Mathematical Wellness. Sure, I wrote a blog or two, and continue to Tweet ideas about this subject, whose domain of public interest has, somewhat ironically, not always been a blessing.

And for Jo Boaler, who has seen much blessing, is now tragically ensnared in its ugly curse. Wellness? For her–ironically writing the beautiful foreword for my last book–that word is something she is now desperately seeking.

What has happened to Jo Boaler these past years can only be labeled a tragedy–suffering of a person brought on by a series of sorrowful events. If at this point, you are unaware of how Jo Boaler, one of the most respected and influential math educators of the past two decades, has suffered to the point where her story can only be framed as a tragedy, then my final math blog–regrettably–aims to illuminate a very dark period in her life

A dark period that very few people know. This account of it is mine. I only asked Jo Boaler for permission to include some of the darker details.

I have known Jo Boaler personally for 5 years now. I, like thousands others, have attended her workshops/keynotes, uniquely balancing deep research, beauty of mathematics, and a historic passion for bringing that to all students. So, when I messaged her in 2019 if she was willing to write the foreword for Chasing Rabbits, she responded in just over 30 minutes.

That quickness wasn’t surprising to me. It was proportional to our friendship. And, to continue to honour that friendship I am morally obligated to write an unvarnished and unflinching story–from my perspective–of the hurt that has befallen her.

I have 5 years of Twitter DM’s with Jo Boaler. As you can see from the message below, she has always hoped the truth about mathematics could prevail over legal action. Unfortunately, even the best of us have to resort to that to not just preserve our reputation, but our health. Both are in dire straits now.

Death threats. Rape threats. PTSD. Never thought these horrific words would enter a math blog, let alone my final one. But, there is no possible way to tell the complete story without them. This is what Jo Boaler is now dealing with. What kind of climate of discourse and understanding about mathematics education must exist to contribute to such unimaginable and unrelenting hostility? (For the record, Jo Boaler has privately shared those threats with me. Very hard to get those letters out of my mind — and they weren’t even directed at me.)

Well, as this is something I am all too familiar with, is that the idea of equity installed in a math curriculum — the California Framework(for she is just one of the writers)to be specific in this case, will set some people off.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where long overdue changes to reshape and reframe mathematics to benefit all students for the times they live in will bring out the most heinous of responses — death threats.

As someone who speaks in the realm of math history, narrative, storytelling, and culturally responsive mathematics education, I know exactly the motivation for the CF. The way that I frame my work is quite simple — it’s better content and pedagogy. If you would like to know and learn more why it is, let’s talk.

It’s why I always begin my workshops/presentations as the Why?

The answer is visually simple.

Nothing is being removed. There is no subtraction. It is only addition.

Yes, the world of math education has always been linked to political debate, but the extremity of the attacks — coming from a deadly cocktail of fear, ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn the truth— yields and points to a sadly familiar answer that goes beyond even heated discussions.

Jo Boaler is female.

Keith Devlin, a renowned Stanford mathematician, and a mutual friend, has gone on record for saying he more or less says the exact same things as Jo Boaler. We all have. And, to nobody’s surprise, he has yet to have one dart thrown in his direction.

Keith Devlin is male.

Because I am Canadian, I have had the displeasure of getting a front row seat to attacks on her by Canadian math folks. But, as usual, they are mostly white males. Now, let’s be straight here, constructive dialogue/criticism of mathematics–or any subject–can be a healthy thing if we are interested in honest and curious engagement. So, if I can illustrate with simply one example of how insane the radius of Jo Boaler attacks have been, let me present Exhibit A. Please keep in mind that many of the critics are educators with a math background, but criticism by nature — especially in the world of math education — seems to be a sport that seems to invite anyone.

David Staples is a sports writer. A sports writer. Confidently chirping in something so outside his domain of expertise. That is the head-shaking part — the unwavering confidence. To be fair, many sports writers have a sharper reasoning skills than Staples. Nevertheless, Staples threw his unsolicited hat into the ring.

I think David Staples has been in one too many hockey dressing rooms and has heard coaches say “We need to get back to basics”, as such, that he feels he can chime in on mathematics getting “back to basics”. You know. Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. Horse and buggy not included. The implication of the back-to-basics movement is that the basics aren’t being taught. So myopic are these folks is that they believe that something like “6 x 7”, part of the times tables, needs to be…taught?

Uh, no. What needs to be taught is that 2 x 3 x 7 is equal to 42. By breaking numbers apart into their primes, a key mathematical skill in flexible thinking, we can now create a family of math facts. Pick any number. 3? Now multiply the other two, 2 x7. That gives you 14. Now we have constructed a math fact for 42 — that it equals 3 x 14. A whole family of math facts for 42 can be created.

Including 6 x 7, David Staples and who else is picking low-hanging mathematical fruit. Hanging is being polite. It’s been rotting on the ground for several years.

Now, while it might seem funny on the surface, it is this kind of entitlement to critique/denigrate math educators(I have been in the crosshairs myself) that is exclusively reserved for people of privilege–whether wealth, race, and/or gender. And, when left unattended to or responded back in a vigor that is necessary, the most unimaginable consequences can occur. Attempts to block her research, take published papers down, stop research funding, halt work with districts, and rape threats against her and her two daughters. All while telling her “to go back home”. Besides being malignant in character, who are these people in terms of mathematics?

In a nutshell, what these people dangerously promote is not wholly antiquated and pedagogically weak, the actual content is even weaker, only being held up by the strength of its white authoritarianism. Nobody has endured more damage to reputation and health than Jo Boaler. We talk a good game about rehumanizing math education, but the truth of the matter is that it has been, sadly, a realm of only dehumanization for Jo Boaler–especially the last year or so.

Her story has caused me to even evaluate what I am doing in math education, when such toxicity is going generally unchecked. The beauty of math. The history of math. The moral imperative to have every student experience mathematics the way Jo Boaler has written about for a good chunk of this century. It doesn’t mean much, when the person who has helped us all in some way bring positive attention to mathematics, is suffering almost quietly.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for her. Yes, because of her contribution to math education. But, and maybe just as equally, for her ability to still be standing after years and years of abuse and threats. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would have thrown in the towel, called it a day, and walked away from it.

It takes courage and fight, that seems to be a trademark of being a woman, to remain resilient in the throes of all the unwarranted punches — punching up seems to be hobby with many on social media — at your professional and personal identities.

Jo Boaler should not be fighting alone. Attacks upon her are really attacks upon all of us who believe in the quality of math education that, at bottom, is a fundamental right for every student. How we collectively respond will shed truthful light on how much we believe in humanizing math education.

If my children were ever threatened in a manner that Jo Boaler’s has, I would leave this place and never comeback. We need Jo Boaler. And now Jo Boaler needs us.

You can offer support #ProtectprofBoaler on Twitter

Sunil

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