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Grant Puts U-Idaho and WSU Professors On Math-Reasoning Skills Frontline

Student deciphering math problem

Students are taught the “how-to” part of mathematics every day in the classroom, but thanks to a nearly $5 million National Science Foundation grant, faculty at Washington State University and the University of Idaho will help area teachers to teach students the “why” behind mathematical reasoning skills.

“This project is an exciting opportunity for us to work more closely with teachers in our region,” says Anne Adams, U-Idaho assistant professor in the College of Education and co-principal investigator on the project management team. “I love working with teachers, especially when we are all focused on helping students understand mathematics.”

Funded by the five-year grant from the NSF’s Mathematics and Science Partnership program, the “Making Math Reasoning Explicit” (MMRE) project will provide much-needed educational support and professional development for mathematics teachers throughout rural eastern Washington and northern Idaho. The grant will help teachers develop students’ mathematical reasoning by giving students frequent opportunities to make explicit justifications and generalizations.

“Our goal is to work with teachers on how to make math reasoning explicit in their classrooms. Too often students are taught the ‘hows’ of mathematics. They learn how to perform a certain task, or how to arrive at a certain answer, but they don’t understand why that particular procedure works,” says Libby Knott, WSU professor of mathematics and co-principal investigator for MMRE.

Knott adds this project benefits college faculty who are developing courses and workshops for the project, and teachers who are gaining new instruction, in a close partnership. University faculty will conduct research about how students engage in reasoning and justification about mathematics and how teachers develop ways to help students.

In addition, by making students' mathematical reasoning explicit and asking students to justify their reasoning, teachers will learn how each student is thinking about mathematics and use this information to make instructional decisions to meet various students' needs. The ultimate beneficiaries, students will hear a variety of strategies for solving problems and gain different perspectives and approaches to reasoning, and use this information in their own thinking.

"The MMRE way is not to just circle your answer and stop thinking. That's when you should ask, ‘When does my method work and why does it work? What properties or patterns do I notice and why must they be true?’" says Rob Ely, U-Idaho mathematics professor and co-PI.

The first cohort of 20 teachers will start its work in October, meeting on the centrally located WSU campus in Spokane. The group will start with an intensive introduction to MMRE, and get to know the professors from U-Idaho and WSU who will work with teachers for three years.

During year one, teachers will develop their understanding of justification and generalization in a course on proportional reasoning. In addition, they will develop their leadership skills to bring an emphasis on mathematical reasoning directly to their classroom activities.

In the second year, the focus will expand to sharing their knowledge with other teachers in their buildings.

In all three years of their participation in MMRE, teachers will receive leadership support to extend their peer-led training expertise throughout their school district. An additional cohort of regional teachers will begin in each of the following two summers.

The first cohort of teachers will be selected from ten school districts: Bridgeport, Brewster, Creston, Davenport, Grand Coulee Dam, and Wilbur in Washington; and Boundary County, Kellogg, Lake Pend Oreille, and West Bonner in Idaho.

Co-investigators and senior personnel on the project include a consortium of faculty from both WSU and the University of Idaho and a K-12 superintendent:

• Anne Adams, assistant professor, U-Idaho curriculum and instruction department, co-PI;
• Tom Asaki, associate professor, WSU mathematics department;
• Rob Ely, assistant professor, U-Idaho mathematics department, co-PI;
• Jennifer Johnson-Leung, assistant professor, U-Idaho mathematics department, co-PI;
• Libby Knott, professor, WSU mathematics department, PI;
• Jim Kowalkowski, superintendent of the Davenport School District, and director of the Washington Rural Education Center, co-PI; and
• Jo Olson, assistant professor, WSU f teaching and learning department, co-PI.

The Mathematics and Science Partnership program at NSF responds to the growing national concern for the educational performance of U.S. children in mathematics and science. Through the partnership program, NSF awards competitive, merit-based grants to teams composed of institutions of higher education, local K-12 school systems, and their supporting partners.