Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
CAS Connect August 2013

On track and on target

Making math reasoning explicit

It’s mid-way through summer session and nearly every table in the Math Learning Center on the Pullman campus is full. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that these aren’t your traditional undergraduate students: it’s a special summer institute for 75 elementary and secondary math teachers designed to help them help their students.

MMRE Summer Institute teachers listen to a presentation by WSU faculty
MMRE Summer Institute teachers listen to a resentation
by WSU faculty

“In traditional math instruction, students are taught how to use a certain formula,” said Libby Knott, WSU professor of mathematics and director of the summer institute, “but they aren’t taught why it works or what the reasoning is behind the process.”

The summer institute is just one element of the Making Mathematics Reasoning Explicit (MMRE—pronounced “memory”) program. Knott partnered with Jo Olson, assistant professor of mathematics education in the WSU College of Education, and with colleagues at the University of Idaho and the superintendent of the Davenport School District to develop the MMRE program. A $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Math and Science Partnership brought the program to life in 2011.

MMRE Summer Institute teachers discuss an assignment
MMRE Summer Institute teachers discuss an assignment

Each year, 25 teachers in grades four through twelve are selected to participate in a three-year MMRE program. Knott and her team chose to work with rural districts in the Inland Northwest because small districts usually don’t have the resources for extended professional development. Additionally, the program has the potential make significant positive and systemic change in the math instruction available in these communities.

The MMRE summer institute brings the teachers to campus for three weeks of intensive instruction and cooperative study. There are morning math classes for everyone with breakouts for grade-specific instruction and special topics. The first summer institute, held in 2012, focused on proportional reasoning and this year the focus was on geometric reasoning.

Teachers tackle the campus map treasure hunt assignment
Teachers tackle the campus map treasure hunt assignment

Teachers experienced first-hand the type of concrete examples that can lead to better student engagement with math concepts. For example, one of their assignments this year was a treasure hunt. Teachers were given a map of the Pullman campus and a set of geometric clues (coordinates, distances, etc.), to locate the hidden items. This type of exercise promotes learning-by-doing, requires reasoning to determine methodology and develops critical thinking skills that work in math class and beyond.

MMRE participants“The logic and reasoning skills needed to examine the process of a mathematical argument can also be applied when considering a persuasive argument in a speech or the merits of government spending cuts,” said Olson.

Afternoons in the summer institute are filled with independent and group study and with leadership training. MMRE teachers are expected to share new
skills with colleagues in their home schools and districts. Inviting superintendents to participate in the last three days of the summer institute reinforces this crucial training-the-trainers element.

While the MMRE program is an outstanding professional development opportunity for rural teachers, it’s also serious research for Knott and Olson.

“We are collecting data and student artifacts, reviewing classroom videos, and assessing the outcomes of specific assignments for the teachers,” explained Knott.

Working together to solve geometric reasoning problem
Working together to solve
geometric reasoning problem

The goal is to better understand key elements for improving the way mathematics is taught and learned in elementary and secondary settings. In addition to the summer institute, the MMRE team conducts classroom observations, visits each district several times a year and offers five half-day and one full-day regional seminars. An external evaluation company is benchmarking the participating schools and tracking student achievement over the five-year research project.

“It’s too early to report any significant results,” said Knott, “but we have lots of anecdotal reports from teachers about how this work is changing their teaching and their students’ engagement in mathematics.”

2013 MMRE participants

Dinah Gaddie, Washington Elementary, Sandpoint+
“We really want to make changes that are going to last in our schools and districts.”

Annette Lembcke, Creston Middle and High School+
Believes skills that MMRE teachers are learning will help push students to rely more on critical thinking and reasoning rather than simply completing [math] problems. Reported her MMRE-related work with students appeared to increase academic confidence. One girl who wasn’t a fan of math even said, “I feel so smart!”

Kathy Prummer, Sandpoint Middle School*
“This project gave me the confidence that I would be able to [teach math fulltime] because it deepened my own math understanding and it also gave me various skills and models that I could take back to the classroom.” Using the MMRE methods, she reports that her students’ test scores have improved.

Toby Valdez, Parkway Elementary, Clarkston*
“When we stared [using the MMRE methods], the kids stared coming up with their own methods and remembering a lot more and retaining the information better because they had more connections to what they were doing.”

Carey Fulfs, Jennings Elementary, Colfax*
“We’ve all become great resources for each other and now have a network of lots of different schools in the Washington/Idaho area.”

Joni Stevens, Jefferson Elementary, Pullman*
Reports seeing improvements in her students’ test scores and their abilities to reason through math problems.

* Credit: Learning New Ways to Teach Math, Daily News by Meredith Metsker
+ Credit: Teachers Learn How to Make Math Matter to Students, Daily News by Holly Bowen