UGA Education Faculty Receive $1.1 Million NSF Grant to study the Teaching, Learning of Algebra in M

ATHENS, Ga. – With national education reform proposals calling for students to begin studying algebra in earlier grades, University of Georgia College of Education researchers are undertaking a three-year project in one northeast Georgia middle school to study how mathematics teaching and learning interact – and more important, how that process might be made more effective.

Faculty members in mathematics education and the Learning Performance Support Laboratory (LPSL) have received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct the project called “Coordinating Students’ and Teachers’ Algebraic Reasoning” (CoSTAR) beginning this spring in Morgan County Middle School (MCMS).

“When people hear the word algebra, they usually think of high school courses that focus on skills like solving equations,” said Andrew Izsák, an assistant professor in mathematics education and lead investigator for the project. “The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and other organizations concerned with mathematics education have recently articulated a vision of algebra focused on reasoning and problem solving that is appropriate for students in earlier grades and that can better prepare students for symbolic aspects of high school algebra courses.”

The CoSTAR project will videotape classroom mathematics lessons and use those videos in interviews to investigate how the teacher and students understood those lessons. MCMS has 10 mathematics teachers and 685 students from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds but the project will focus on three teachers and three cohorts of six students – one each in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Research in education and psychology has shown that adults and children often understand shared experiences in different ways, but much less is known about how teachers and their students understand shared lessons or how classroom learning occurs over sequences of lessons.

“In fact, research on teachers and teaching and on students and learning have rarely been conducted in the same classrooms,” said Izsák. “The CoSTAR project will focus on the interplay between teachers’ and students’ understandings of shared classroom interactions and on the ways
they work together to shape the teaching and learning of middle-school algebra.”

Researchers will examine the sense that students make of their opportunities to learn and teachers’ sensitivity to the core learning issues for their students. The scope of the project requires a team of researchers who will collaborate on data collection and analysis.

The project is working in MCMS because the district has recently adopted the Connected Mathematics Program, new instructional materials that are aligned with the broader vision of algebra and whose development was also supported by the NSF.

The CoSTAR project will use the results of the classroom studies to guide professional development for mathematics teachers at MCMS. Research findings will help the teachers gain insight into how students understand mathematics lessons conducted with the new materials and to develop new teaching strategies in response.

“We are very interested in what this project will contribute to teachers’ knowledge of students’ understanding, particularly regarding algebra,” said Morgan County Middle School principal Ralph Bennett.

Other Morgan County teachers and administrators are also eager partners in the CoSTAR project.

“We’ve always been successful with our top students, but to reach more students we could see that we needed to make some changes,” said associate superintendent Stan DeJarnett. “We see the CoSTAR project as supporting our long-term school improvement process. With the Connected Mathematics Program, we’ve already begun to see some improvements in teaching and learning. We expect this project will support continued improvement.”

Other UGA investigators in the project include Bradford Findell and John Olive, also faculty members in mathematics education, and Chandra Orrill, a research scientist in the LPSL. Additional project staff includes graduate students in mathematics education and in instructional technology.

The broader impact of the CoSTAR project includes deeper insights into the connections between classroom teaching and learning that could apply to other subject areas as well.

The project will complement and contribute to the college’s Center for Proficiency in Teaching Mathematics, according to Pat Wilson, head of the mathematics education department and director of the Center. The center was created last fall when it received a $10.3 million NSF grant as part of a nationwide effort to revitalize the teaching of mathematics from pre-kindergarten through college.

UGA researchers say that mathematics teachers need a special kind of math knowledge to teach more effectively – one that differs from the type of mathematics that is taught to architects, engineers, computer scientists and research mathematicians.

“We want teachers to have a profound understanding of mathematics. They have to be able to unpack the mathematics so students can learn it. They need to be able to connect it to other ideas both in and outside of mathematics,” said Wilson.

To achieve this goal, UGA’s Center for Proficiency in Teaching Mathematics is aiming to enhance teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom through changes in their mathematics
preparation and by making teaching practice the primary site and resource for their professional learning. The CoSTAR project will investigate how teaching practice can form the basis for such learning.

The center and the CoSTAR project both drawn on a model of proficiency from a 2001 National Research Council report written by a committee chaired by UGA Regents Professor Jeremy Kilpatrick, which said an overhaul of school mathematics would be necessary for students to boost achievement.

Kilpatrick and Findell co-edited that NRC committee report titled “Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics.”