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Beyond ‘Math Magic’

By Tara Roberts
Photos by Allison Stormo

David Lien often hears a familiar question from students: “When am I going to use math in the real world?”

As a teacher participating in the University of Idaho and Washington State University’s Making Mathematics Reasoning Explicit (MMRE) program, Lien has learned the methods and skills that help him show students the power of math – as well as help them walk away with a deeper understanding of it.

“It has totally changed me as a teacher,” says Lien, who teaches at Sandpoint’s Forrest M. Bird Charter School. “The way that I’m teaching now, the students are more engaged. The majority of them really see the purpose of mathematics in the real world.”

A $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation funds MMRE, a partnership among UI, WSU and a group of rural school districts in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. The program is now in its third year.

Seventy teachers of fourth through 12th grades spend two-and-a-half weeks each summer on the Palouse, learning math teaching techniques they can apply in their classrooms, then share with others in their schools. This summer, their coursework also included instruction from two Oxford professors, John Mason and Anne Watson, who specialize in mathematics reasoning.

The first cohort of teachers to enter the MMRE program, like Lien, are now teacher-leaders who can instruct others in MMRE methods. This June, an additional 52 teachers from the Inland Northwest came to UI for a workshop focusing on Common Core math standards.

The mathematics-reasoning approach shifts classrooms from “the sage on the stage” teacher-centered model to a student-centered focus, says teacher-leader Dinah Gaddie, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary in Sandpoint.

“It’s not just can you get the answer and what’s the answer, but why?” Gaddie says. “It’s not ‘math magic.’ What’s the structure behind the math that makes it work?”

UI and WSU faculty teach teachers about math for the Making Mathematics Reasoning Explicit program.
UI and WSU faculty teach teachers about math for the Making Mathematics Reasoning Explicit program.

Organizing the MMRE program are five faculty members from WSU and UI, with WSU math professor Libby Knott serving as project lead. Associate mathematics professor Rob Ely and assistant mathematics professor Jennifer Johnson–Leung from the UI College of Science, assistant math education professor Anne Adams from the UI College of Education, and WSU clinical assistant professor of mathematics education Jo Clay make up the rest of the team.

Ely and Adams say MMRE allows teachers to learn how they can make math more meaningful and accessible to their students.

“The reason that this project has been supported is the United States and the National Science Foundation recognize that math is a high need among our students,” Ely says. “Once they know why a method works, they’re able to retain the information better and apply it in other situations.”

Adams says MMRE provides a supportive framework that helps teachers actually apply mathematics-reasoning methods in their classrooms, rather than just hear that they should.

“I’m just passionate about helping teachers understand what they can do in the classroom that will pull all their students in and get them eager and excited about math,” she says.

“It is frightening to go out on a limb and step away from the methods you understand and are comfortable with. But if we want our students to come away with the problem-solving skills that business and industry are expecting, we have to do more. We have to set up opportunities for students to think and reason for themselves, and we have to support kids in learning how to do that.”

Teachers learning about math for the Making Mathematics Reasoning Explicit program.
Teachers learning about math for the Making Mathematics Reasoning Explicit program.


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