Exploring New Ways to Talk Math

Playing icebreaker bingoFor many adults, mathematics is a vital part of life, but it's easy to forget how we developed the number sense that got us to that point. How did your teacher support your understanding of addition? What was the a-ha moment that finally helped you "get" division? What about figuring out whether something was more than, less than, or equal to something else? For educators participating in the Early Learning Mathematics Initiative (ELMI), these are just the types of questions they are exploring.

ELMI, a professional development program created by the San Mateo County Office of Education and funded by grants from the Heising-Simons Foundation, is a preschool-to-third-grade initiative designed to increase student achievement in mathematics—especially for those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Their approach is learner centered, said Kim Bambao, the coordinator for early learning mathematics at SMCOE: "It isn't just about getting the right answer. Students need to understand why something works, and teachers need to be able to conceptualize these ideas for themselves."

The kindergarten group reports on what their students learnedTo accomplish these goals, the professionals participating in the ELMI program turn to "Math Talks," a method that uses five- to ten-minute classroom conversations to support, elicit, and extend students' mathematical thinking. The idea behind these talks is that completing paper-and-pencil tasks can be a bit of a dead end, because students' answers are either right or wrong. Encouraging students to explore new concepts by talking about how they arrived at an answer enables them to take different paths through the problem solving and provides an opportunity for the entire class to discuss comparisons. Mistakes are welcomed, explored, and used as a way of learning.

Discussions about year-to-year growthCurrently, ELMI is working with three schools in the Redwood City School District: Garfield, Fair Oaks, and John Gill. All three committed to including teachers from preschool to third grade in the program, and this buy-in makes it easier to see how students are learning over time. Teachers participate in one-on-one and grade-level coaching opportunities focused on supporting students' mathematical thinking. They also engage in professional learning communities where they work horizontally—with teachers of their own grade to discuss best practices—and vertically—with teachers of other grades, so they can understand and develop methods of supporting student growth.

"A question we consider is 'How are teachers supporting student learning?'" said Andrea Meyers, a project specialist in early learning mathematics at the County Office and one of the coaches for the program. "We help teachers examine and use teaching moves that support students' understanding of the mathematics."

The program is still in its infancy, but teachers at Garfield and Fair Oaks Community Schools say it seems to be working. They're in their second year of ELMI and spent an afternoon in April reflecting on and sharing their Math Talks experiences. When discussing what students knew this year that they didn't in years past, kindergarten teachers pointed out that kids coming from transitional kindergarten were able to count—something that the previous years' students struggled with.

The third grade group discusses their progressThe teachers could feel their own understanding growing, too, with a number of them remarking that they were noticing things they wouldn't have noticed before participating in ELMI. When asked if there were any commonalities between the different grades, everyone agreed: all students were learning how to express their thinking about math in more meaningful ways.

Edited to Add: After this article was written, Stanford's John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities completed a study on the Early Learning Mathematics Initiative, which concluded that teachers' participation in ELMI led to positive shifts in their attitudes, knowledge, skills, and beliefs. According to the authors, "these types of efforts provide an opportunity to promote coherence in a child's early schooling" and can improve student achievement outcomes. Read more about the study.

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