Skip to main
University-wide Navigation

A new University of Kentucky study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) seeks to make mathematics more relatable to all students by focusing on how teachers respond to children’s experiences, knowledge and mathematical reasoning. 

UK College of Education Department of STEM Education faculty are collaborating with faculty at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Georgia State University and Rowan University on the $1.5 million NSF grant, with $821,000 of the funding coming to UK. 

Preparing teachers to create equitable mathematics classrooms is an ongoing challenge for teacher education, said Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., lead principal investigator of the NSF grant and professor and chair in the UK College of Education Department of STEM Education. 

“There are students not being reached, sometimes because the structures we have in place send signals that this thing called ‘math’ really isn’t for you, and we want to push against those narratives. We lose so much talent, brain power and creativity by shutting certain doors,” Thomas said.  

The research team will help pre-service elementary teachers develop responsive teaching practices around equity, with a focus on issues such as power achievement, identity, positioning and how cultures and histories weave into mathematics. 

“This can include helping pre-service teachers think about whose voices are being elevated in their classrooms and whether some voices are getting sidelined,” Thomas said. “We need to help pre-service teachers find ways to drill into that and think about how to elevate different voices.” 

The team’s prior research has focused on helping pre-service elementary teachers learn to take notice of clues within students’ reactions during lessons and develop their responses accordingly — a concept known as “noticing.” In this project, the researchers will focus on ways teachers can use noticing to cultivate children’s strengths and identities as mathematics learners. 

"When noticing takes place through the lens of rehumanizing mathematics, it can lead to a broader understanding of how access, participation and positioning within the mathematics classroom could be contributing to students’ opportunities to learn,” said Cindy Jong, Ph.D., co-principal investigator on the NSF grant and professor in the UK College of Education Department of STEM Education.   

Rehumanizing mathematics is a framework developed by Rochelle Gutierrez, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor who focuses on sociopolitical issues of identity and power in mathematics education, such as how race, class and language impact teaching and learning. 

“In rehumanizing mathematics, we want our pre-service teachers to place a lot of intention behind the design of lesson plans. This could include incorporating collaborative tasks where student responses are more open-ended, so students are able to show what they know in a variety of ways. We don’t want students to be limited to just regurgitating or replicating what they're being shown. They can really shine in their own way, too. We want them to view themselves as little mathematicians.” 

The multiyear project will go deeper into "noticing" by intersecting it with the dimensions of rehumanizing mathematics. 

“We will be able to follow pre-service teachers from our mathematics methods course to student teaching and then through their first year of teaching. This will allow us to continue our networking and mentoring role and ensure they truly feel equipped to teach mathematics in a way that is a lot more critical, accessible and connected to their students,” Jong said. 

The team will create instructional materials, learning modules and other tools for pre-service teachers to develop their skills in equitable noticing as they prepare for careers as elementary teachers. These materials will be shared with other university teacher preparation programs to help meet a need for more resources that help pre-service teachers learn about equitable approaches to mathematics teaching and learning. 

With three collaborating universities taking part in the study, the materials developed stand to be richer, wider-ranging and more adaptable. 

“It broadens the number and diversity of people the project will connect with so that what is developed will benefit from having a variety of lived experiences and cultures contributing,” Thomas said.  

The team will also develop a series of assessments to gauge change in teachers’ noticing practices as they move from more novice forms of noticing into more complex forms of noticing based on the rehumanizing mathematics framework. Then, they will determine if the noticing carries through into their first year of teaching. 

“We want to get data on how helping pre-service teachers unpack this complex practice influences them not just during college, but also how well we make it stick as they transition into full time teachers. We hope to make it hold over time so that it doesn’t get eroded as they move into different contexts,” Thomas said. 

The project will also create opportunities for college students to consider ways they could influence policy and create change in their future schools and districts, opening doors for more students. 

“Teachers can play a role in, for example, advocating for students who would benefit from programs, such as gifted and talented, to be screened for them in equitable ways,” Jong said. “When they look at who is traditionally participating, they have the agency to raise questions about current systems and who they are serving. Beyond measures such as standardized test scores, there are many nontraditional ways for students to show their brilliance in mathematics.” 

By creating more opportunities for students to see themselves as capable mathematics learners, the research team hopes to plant seeds for long-term impact. 

“We see a lack of diversity in a lot of STEM professions,” Thomas said. “This may go as far back as pre-K experiences, where students may have received messages that made them feel they are a ‘math person’ or not a ‘math person.’ The fundamental goal of this project is to help teachers find ways to notice math moments in elementary schools and lift students up in a way that’s unexpected. That’s the kind of stuff that changes the world.” 

Faculty collaborating on the NSF grant include: 

University of Kentucky (lead institution) 

  • Principal investigator: Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., professor and chair, UK College of Education Department of STEM Education
  • Co-principal investigator: Cindy Jong, Ph.D., professor, UK College of Education Department of STEM Education 

Rowan University 

  • Principal investigator: Molly Fisher, Ph.D., associate dean of research and innovation, Rowan University College of Education 

University of Texas at San Antonio 

  • Principal investigator: Crystal Kalinec-Craig, Ph.D., associate professor of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, USTA College of Education and Human Development 
  • Co-principal investigator: Emily Bonner, Ph.D., associate professor of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching and assistant dean of research, USTA College of Education and Human Development 

Georgia State University 

  • Principal investigator: Naomi Jessup, Ph.D., assistant professor, GSU College of Education and Human Development Department of Early Childhood Elementary Education 
  • Senior personnel: Daniel Edelen, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics education, GSU College of Education and Human Development Department of Early Childhood Elementary Education 

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2301114. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.