Published in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, June 29, 2012.
Reprinted with permission. Photo by Dean Hare.

By Holly Bowen
Daily News staff writer

Teachers discuss their approach to teaching math
Teachers in the Making Math Reasoning Explicit institute

Dozens of teachers from rural Inland Northwest school districts are learning how to make math more relevant and interesting thanks to a National Science Foundation-funded program being administered by faculty at Washington State University and the University of Idaho.

Fifty teachers of grades 4-10 from eastern Washington and northern Idaho have been staying at WSU this month as part of the Making Math Reasoning Explicit program’s Summer Institute. They’re the first and second of three cohorts of teachers participating in the total five-year, $5 million professional development program. The first cohort began its work last fall, and by the time next summer rolls around, all three groups of teachers will be on-board.

Starting last week and continuing through Tuesday, the teachers are spending a couple hours each morning together in math classes, followed by another couple hours in more grade-specific math classes for elementary and secondary teachers. Then in the afternoon, they learn leadership skills and have opportunities for independent and group study.

“We have asked the (participating) school districts to send us the teachers they feel can be leaders in their districts,” said Libby Knott, a WSU math professor and one of the co-principal investigators of the MMRE program.

Sharing with colleagues

She said those teachers will take what they learned during the program and share it with other teachers in their schools and districts, many of which have only a few hundred students.

“I think we felt that rural schools don’t really get a lot of attention, and they have so few resources, that we thought we could really make a difference for rural schools,” Knott said.

About 25 superintendents, principals, curriculum directors and other administrators from participating districts are also on campus, but for only three days this week, to become acquainted with the program that will eventually affect how math is taught at their schools.

“We really want to make changes that are going to last in our schools and districts,” said Dinah Gaddie, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School in Sandpoint.

MMRE program logoShe said MMRE is giving her and the other teachers the opportunity to grow their own mathematical abilities and to plan to show what they’ve learned to their students and other educators.

“A lot of professional development is either one or the other,” Gaddie said of the balance between content and leadership.

Knott said during the teachers’ math classes, the university faculty members try to model instruction in the same way the K-12 teachers should be teaching their own students.

Annette Lembcke, who teaches middle and high school students in the Creston, Wash., School District, said the skills that teachers are learning through MMRE will help them push their students to rely more on critical thinking and reasoning than simply completing problems as they’ve been told to.

Now, she said, teachers will also be asking their students, “How did you get to the answer? Is it always true, and why is it always true?”

Gaddie said students can apply those critical thinking skills to other types of life situations.

“It really becomes less about the answers and more about the journey,” she said.

She said the teachers are learning how to present math problems with multiple entry points so students with different types of skills feel comfortable approaching them. For example, some students might learn better with pictures, and others can relate well to the mathematical skills they’ve learned in the past.

As far as her own expertise goes, she said she has always felt like she was good at math but tended to go straight to formulas. Now she’s learning to approach problems in different ways and to anticipate how her students might react, as well.

She said she’s excited to start school again this fall and anticipates that as more critical thinking is infused into lessons, teachers will hear fewer students complaining that they’re not good at math.

‘I feel so smart’

Lembcke said the MMRE-related work she did with her students this past school year appeared to increase academic confidence in some of them. One girl who isn’t a fan of math even said, “I feel so smart.”

The teachers said the new approach encourages children to take ownership of their studies.

Knott said the National Science Foundation hopes the MMRE program will boost student engagement and achievement in math and increase the likelihood they will eventually pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) disciplines.

Teachers visited Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories on Thursday afternoon in part to learn about those types of careers and why people would want to pursue them.

Lembcke recalled one moment from a Summer Institute math class when Rob Ely, an assistant math professor at the UI and another of the project’s co-investigators, asked a teacher to go up to the front of the class to solve a problem. She wasn’t feeling very confident about her ability to answer correctly, but Ely’s response summed up a message the teachers anticipate sharing with their students: “Even if it’s wrong, we have a place to start.”