Vol. 12 No. 6 - January, 2010

Improving K-8 math teaching and learning

Robert Carlin Photography
RSRC Math Coordinator Wendy Cleaves discusses different ways to illustrate math problems with K-8 teachers at a MLC training session.

Helping children master mathematics can be as much a function of how they are taught as what they are taught. Research has shown that creating collaborative teams is a key professional development strategy to help math teachers connect their teaching methods to curriculum content. Bringing groups of teachers together to brainstorm and compare various instructional approaches in a Mathematics Learning Community (MLC) helps them uncover and explore how students think and learn about specific mathematical concepts. With this deeper understanding of how students perceive and apply a concept, teachers are better able to foster students’ understanding in a classroom setting.

“A learning community is an exciting form of job-embedded, ongoing professional development through which teachers increase student learning by working together,” said Wendy Cleaves, MME, MEd, math coordinator for UMass Medical School’s Regional Science Resource Center (RSRC). Cleaves and RSRC Math Consultant Dona Apple are co-developers of the MLC facilitator training program that is being implemented across the state on behalf of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The premise of the program is that both teachers and students have insights that can be unlocked and built upon to improve teaching and learning.

At a recent facilitator training session, math teachers and administrators from Worcester and New Bedford created and shared diagrams that might help children visually and verbally understand and solve word problems involving multiplication and division of fractions. “I have found it fascinating to identify what a child’s thought process is, what is faulty in it and what can be done to improve it,” said participant Jeanne Bonneau, EdD, principal of the Normandin Middle School in New Bedford. “It is gratifying to conduct this work with dedicated teachers who want to continually delve deeper to help their students do better.”

The RSRC developed the program, a component of its professional development offerings for math and science teachers, with funding from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. School administrators who want to establish a formal MLC at their schools send one or more of their math lead teachers or coaches to regularly scheduled train-the-trainer sessions held at the RSRC on the Worcester Foundation campus in Shrewsbury; in turn, the trained facilitators bring their newly acquired knowledge back to their colleagues. Initially piloted in Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford and Lawrence, the program is now available to any Massachusetts school district upon request.

As an alternative to the daylong facilitator training sessions, MLC training materials can be downloaded from www.doe.mass.edu/omste/instructional.html to help schools and districts implement MLCs on their own. Providing both the structure and the math content to facilitate discussions, these materials can be used by schools or districts to make more productive use of common teacher-planning time. Further expanding the program’s reach, last fall the RSRC presented the Webinar “Building Mathematics Learning Communities: A Focus on Looking at Student Work,” which drew participants from 11 states (the Webinar can be viewed online at http://www.umassmed.edu/Math_Learning_Community.) Cleaves and Apple also presented MLCs at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics regional conference in Boston in October, and will introduce the program at the organization’s national conference in April.

“The MLC program has exceeded expectations,” said Life LeGeros, director of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Targeted Assistance in Mathematics. “We are thrilled to continue working with RSRC to promote and disseminate the program, and are also looking at this as a model for supporting context-based professional learning in other areas.”