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College Receives Funding to Improve Math Education for Elementary Students

photo of Cindy Jong
Dr. Cindy Jong

The University of Kentucky College of Education has received $599,875 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research, develop, and implement ways of teaching mathematics that integrate equitable teaching practices. The three-year project will directly impact more than 600 college students who are studying to become elementary teachers in programs across Kentucky, as well as parts of Ohio.

The project’s leaders are based in the STEM Education Department at the UK College of Education. Cindy Jong will serve as principal investigator, with Jonathan Thomas and Molly Fisher as co-investigators. Edna Schack, a longtime collaborator from Morehead State University, will serve as senior personnel on the project. Their other university partners are located at Asbury University, Bowling Green State University, Campbellsville University, Eastern Kentucky University, Union College, Western Kentucky University and the Kentucky Center for Mathematics.

“The project has the potential to significantly impact how pre-service teachers learn to teach mathematics to elementary students, with a focus on reaching and empowering all learners, regardless of background,” Jong said. “Once the pre-service teachers who participate in this study go on to have classrooms of their own, our goal is to see a ripple effect as it continues to impact students they teach in years to come.”

photo of Dr. Molly Fisher
Dr. Molly Fisher

The project is rooted in a pedagogical process called professional noticing. The way a child understands mathematics is different than an adult’s perception. The comments and questions students have during a lesson provide clues about their understanding of what is being taught. Professional noticing takes place when teachers recognize these clues within student reactions and develop their responses accordingly.

“Teachers typically only have a few seconds to decide how to respond to a student’s question or comment,” Fisher said. “Doing this in the heat of the moment, in a room of more than 20 students, can be challenging. When done well, professional noticing can be the key to a student catching on, versus losing interest and falling behind.”

The research team has spent the past several years creating a system to help develop professional noticing skills in pre-service teachers. They partnered with elementary teachers in Kentucky to go into classrooms and collect video footage of the practice in action. The videos have been turned into online learning modules pre-service teachers use to help develop their own professional noticing skills. The videos have also been used in online professional development for current teachers.

photo of Dr. Jonathon Thomas
Dr. Jonathan Thomas

“The videos we created have been useful to teachers in training, and have also been rich in data for researchers to interpret,” Thomas said. “While they offered a creative and potentially transformative approach to the preparation of future elementary teachers, we noticed one area we felt needed further exploration. With this funding, we are now able to examine how professional noticing provides opportunities to consider equity issues such as access, participation, and positioning within the mathematics classroom.”

While culture may be a positive and powerful classroom dynamic, the researchers say it may also act as a conduit for inequities when teachers assume a student’s mathematical ability based upon the student’s ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, gender, beliefs and creeds, or their ability to speak the dominant language of instruction.

“Culture permeates every aspect of life by its very definition,” Jong said. “It has been shown in research to have an impact on how students think about mathematics. This is vital to recognize when considering inclusion, participation, and identity in mathematics. Students from non-dominant cultures should be encouraged to draw upon their experiences as assets and to think critically in mathematics.”

Researchers will be designing the project to examine and address various equity issues that occur in the process of professional noticing, and that may contribute to the way students from various backgrounds develop mathematical skills. The project, “Microlearning Mathematics Modules that Intersect Noticing and Equity,” has been funded by the NSF for three years. It builds upon two previous projects by the same team of researchers in the College of Education, with a combined $1.3 million in NSF funding over the past eight years.

For more information about the STEM Education Department in the UK College of Education, visit https://education.uky.edu/stem/.