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With a new $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of Delaware will partner with the Delaware Mathematics Coalition (DMC) to understand the challenges teachers face as they try to change the way they teach and the support that could help teachers overcome these obstacles.

Helping math teachers

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UD professors receive new grant to support Delaware teachers in improving their mathematics instruction

Teachers continue to learn after they leave college through experiences they have with their students and through formal professional development. Offered through school districts and other educational organizations, professional development (commonly referred to as PD in the educational setting) often encourages teachers to change their instruction using research-based methods that better facilitate student learning.

However, it can be difficult for K-12 teachers to adopt new methods, especially as they navigate the complexities of their classrooms. Many teachers also feel responsible for their students’ learning and hesitate to use an unfamiliar instructional approach or untested curriculum.

With a new $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of Delaware will partner with the Delaware Mathematics Coalition (DMC) to understand the challenges teachers face as they try to change the way they teach and the support that could help teachers overcome these obstacles.

UD faculty members James Hiebert, Robert J. Barkley Professor in the School of Education (SOE), Erica Litke and Lynsey Gibbons, both assistant professors in the SOE, will work with Jamila Q. Riser and Valerie C. Maxell of the DMC to understand these challenges in the context of elementary and middle school mathematics.

“Teachers must be convinced that different methods would help their students learn more, they must feel safe trying out new methods, they must learn the methods inside and out, they must have plenty of opportunities to practice using them, and they must learn to adjust the methods to fit their own students. This is a tall order,” said Hiebert.

Said Litke, “We hope to do more than understand what teachers learn from PD. Ultimately, we want to better understand how that learning develops, and how teachers translate their learning from PD into changes in their teaching.”

The research team will work with a group of middle school teachers in grades 4-5 and 6-7. Over a period of three years, the team will provide video-based PD, developed by DMC’s Professional Teaching and Learning Team and refined with teachers throughout Delaware. The teachers will watch videos of classroom teaching and learn to analyze these videos in order to improve their own instruction. 

Previous research found that mathematics teachers who use high-quality teaching methods analyze videos of classroom teaching in different ways than their less effective peers. Rather than focusing on aspects like classroom management in their analysis, these teachers focus more on the mathematics in the lesson and on the changes the teacher could make to improve the learning opportunities.  For example, more effective teachers would focus on the specific interactions between teachers and students around a concept like subtracting fractions with unlike denominators.

This kind of video analysis often fosters mathematics-specific conversations about lesson design and asks teachers to consider how to anticipate and more clearly understand student thinking.

In line with this research, a central question in this project addresses whether learning to analyze videos will help teachers deepen their mathematics content knowledge and better support students in learning key mathematical ideas.

“We hypothesize that teachers’ ability to clearly articulate learning goals and to develop a ‘keen eye’ for the critical moments of a lesson are important elements in learning to analyze video in a way that translates to more effective teaching,” said Maxwell.

In addition to analyzing video clips, the PD sessions will ask small groups of teachers to plan, implement, and view videos of their own lessons on mathematical topics such as place value and equivalence (at the elementary level) and proportions and algebraic representations (at the middle school level). Specially-trained teaching coaches will lead these teacher inquiry groups through several cycles of lesson development and analysis each year.

Through student learning assessments, the use of an established classroom observation instrument called Mathematics-Scan (M-Scan), and the analysis of lesson plans and curricular materials, the research team will then trace growth in teacher learning, changes in teaching practices, and increases in student learning.

To understand teachers’ perspectives and the challenges they face in applying their learning, the team will also conduct interviews with the teachers multiple times throughout the project.

Julien Corven, Kateri Sternberg and Sűmeyye Kurutaş, who are students in the doctoral in education program specializing in mathematics education, will assist the research team in this work. As the project proceeds, they will develop and validate student assessments, observe PD sessions and classroom lessons, assist with video-recording lessons, code videos of teaching practice using the observation instrument, and assist in interviewing teachers, among other activities.

“Education research frequently attempts to show that an intervention, like a particular PD, improves outcomes,” Litke said. “Often, it is difficult to tell what about the intervention made a difference. It is difficult to disentangle the active from the inert ingredients. Without understanding why a PD works — or doesn’t work — it is nearly impossible to replicate the PD in other settings. This project is designed to probe beneath the surface, to generate insights into how and why some professional learning opportunities for teachers make a difference and some do not.”

Said Riser, “One of the strengths of this project that enables this in-depth look at professional development is its unique collaboration between researchers from the University of Delaware and expert practitioners from the Delaware Mathematics Coalition. When researchers and practitioners respect each other’s work and commit to a close partnership, new opportunities open for conducting research that connects with educational practice. We expect to take advantage of these opportunities and produce findings that benefit educators in Delaware and around the country.”

The project will begin in September and continue through the spring of 2025.

For more information about research in mathematics education or teacher preparation and professional learning, visit UD’s College of Education and Human Development research webpages on STEM Education and Teacher Preparation and Professional Development.

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