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When Online Surfing Replaced Long Days in a Dusty Library

And what it means for how I write
By Jo Boaler — January 13, 2020 3 min read
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Not too long ago, university scholars were library dwellers. We would spend hours in dark corners reading dusty tomes, looking for important insights and information. Now scholars that hope to make an impact need to spend their time surfing—riding the information highways, dipping into a Twitter conversation, pulling an article from a news feed, drawing information from a news site or a teacher blog post—to glean valuable information and science.

My most visited and valued sources include social-media giants Twitter and Facebook, journals and magazines such as Scientific American and The Atlantic, education news sites like Education Week and The Hechinger Report, and more general news sites, such as The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. In addition, Stanford sends a daily, university-wide email summarizing three research studies by Stanford faculty, which is a fantastic resource that enables me to learn from a variety of disciplines. These days, I am less likely to find research by picking up an academic journal than to be alerted by a ping on my phone.

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As part of the annual release of the 2020 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, Education Week reached out to a handful of influential scholars from this year’s rankings to find out how they stay informed.

Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year’s new Edu-Scholar data by the EdWeek Research Center.

I also favor good old-fashioned books, printed in black and white on actual paper. I particularly like books written by scholars for the general public, including Carol Dweck’s 2006 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and Steven Strogatz’s description of the beauty of calculus in Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, which he published in 2019. The fact that these books are written for the general public does not make them less scholarly; it just means that the authors have worked to make their writing accessible and interesting. These books offer a readable description of new research and its meaning for us all.

My approach of drawing from these different kinds of sources to find new research has also shaped how I write about research—and where I choose to publish that writing. A good example is the paper I wrote that has probably had more impact and received more attention than any other I have written. The article, “Fluency Without Fear: Research Evidence on the Best Ways to Learn Math Facts,” which is currently approaching half-a-million reader views, was published on my research team’s website (youcubed.org) rather than a journal where it would have reached vastly fewer readers.

“Fluency Without Fear” opens with a popular account published in newspapers across the United Kingdom of a British politician who was ridiculed for not being able to immediately give an answer to the question: What is 7 x 8? My paper then introduced important research from mathematics educators, cited the results of several neuroscience studies, and concluded with the insights of prominent mathematicians.

The paper builds a case, from peer-reviewed research in learning and neuroscience as well as from the experiences of mathematicians, on the importance of moving away from speed and memorization toward number sense and conceptual thinking. It does not read like a typical research paper, but its impact draws from its breadth of sources. By combining research and real-life events, the paper was more accessible for a wide swath of teachers, parents, and other educators.

I view myself as a mathematics educator first and foremost, but there are dangers to reading only mathematics education articles, as the field can become isolated and irrelevant. In our complex, technologically connected world, we must rely on complex technological connections to remain relevant and informed. This information highway is exciting and vivid but it brings with it dangers. We must, of course, be vigilant about the credibility of our sources.

When choosing my career, I was drawn to scholarly work by the idea of spending long days in dusty bookstacks in libraries. These days, I am more likely to be found hanging out in engineering labs or a Facebook chatroom with data scientists. There is only one thing missing from this new scholarly world—the peace of those uncomfortable cubbies in dusty libraries.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as When Picking Up My Phone Replaced Picking Up a Journal

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