Planting a Seed: How the School of Education Has Worked to Grow Student Interest in Math

by John Conroy

To get a more complete picture of something, you step up to a higher position. However, in doing so, you often miss the subtle nuances that come from being at the ground level.
This is why viewing education from various levels is important and why this concept has been a crucial factor within the School of Education’s mathematics program over the past 25 years. On the following pages, a few of our faculty members detail some of this history and our current work. Professor Margaret Smith provides a history of some particularly relevant research projects that have occurred since 1989. Assistant Professor Charles Munter focuses on how equity, experiences, and race can factor into students’ mathematics learning. And Learning Sciences and Policy program Chair Mary Kay Stein writes about how we’ve taken our research on math from a small to a large level and discusses the resulting implications.
As hinted at earlier, a main focus at the school is our ability to think of research and teaching on a micro and macro level. Not only have we taken research projects from the small scale of a few classrooms to studying multiple districts, but we also have been mindful of putting focus on individual students and how their lives impact their ability to learn and understand the material. Even though much more work is involved with this method (as it’s not a one-size- fits-all approach), focusing on the individual and his or her background when attempting to teach will improve the overall teacher-student relationship as well as increase the learner’s ability to better comprehend the material.
This focus on the individual is especially important when we’re discussing lower income areas, as Munter writes about in his article. Teachers often have different backgrounds from their students, and being open to listening and learning more about students’ lives will help teachers in their everyday interactions with students and even with something like how math problems are presented.
Another theme of the articles is the importance of math problems that don’t have an exact path to an answer. With these types of math problems (Smith refers to them as high-level tasks), students must think more openly and process more than they do when supplying a memorized response. This type of active problem solving, complete with productive discussions, can help students to understand math more fully. Even in the book that Smith and Stein wrote, 5 Practices for Orchestrating Mathematics Discussions, they use real-life examples to help teachers better understand through narrative.
The school’s philosophy is the idea of researching not simply for research’s sake but to provide data and results that have a direct impact on individuals. In the same way that rote repeating of math problems can be less helpful than working on tasks without a specific way to the answer, the School of Education focuses on the idea of putting research into practice versus simply having the research published. Faculty members must create questions, develop theories, test those theories in the real world, revise, and begin again. This continuous improvement approach, as Stein discusses, helps teachers to not only reflect on their learning at the classroom level but also helps researchers update their work when new data emerge.
These questions and goals aren’t easy, but they are important, especially as the United States struggles in the areas of mathematics and science compared to similar countries. This is why it’s important for the School of Education to work on improving all levels of the education process: teachers’ relationships with other teachers, the quality of their tasks and problems, understanding students better and using problems more relevant to them, reflecting on the progress and mistakes that have been made, and then building upon what has been accomplished. To better serve our educators and students, the School of Education also is collaborating with schools, institutions, and universities locally and across the country.