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Summer Workshop Improves Elementary Teachers' Mathematical Fluency

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22 August 2013

 When teachers find gaps in their mathematical understanding, such as why a procedure is done a certain way, they have few resources to correct misunderstandings or broaden their knowledge.  For example, the Common Core State Standards are asking teachers across the country to revisit their approach to mathematics instruction. The Pennsylvania Mathematics Initiative (PMI), a new program in the Department of Mathematics at Penn State, which was founded by George Andrews, Evan Pugh Professor of Mathematics, aims to aid teachers by providing professional development in mathematical content for elementary school teachers.

The primary focus of PMI is building mathematical fluency and expertise in teachers in the K–5 grades, which is accomplished through summer workshops led by experienced mathematicians and educators.  This fluency and expertise empowers teachers to implement their curriculum with confidence and take ownership of the lessons they present in the classroom.  Further, these workshops give teachers opportunities to revisit and to challenge old mathematical habits, and remind them what a struggling student feels first-hand, improving their own teaching methods.  The workshops are based on the model created by Ken Gross of the Vermont Mathematics Initiative (VMI), which has operated continually since 1999.  A six-year longitudinal study of students of VMI-trained teachers revealed significant growth in student achievement and a significant narrowing of the socio-economic achievement gap.

The first of these all-day workshops ran July 8 – 19, 2013 on the University Park campus.  Andrew Baxter, instructor of mathematics, and James Sellers, professor of mathematics, taught the workshops. The Office of Outreach and Science Engagement in the Eberly College of Science also played an important role in the workshop by managing the logistical arrangements and keeping the activities running smoothly. Eight participants completed the workshop, representing seven elementary schools in three districts, including State College Area, Bellefonte Area, and Bald Eagle Area. Participants taught grades second through fifth; the group also included an instructional coach and a math specialist. 

Participant comments demonstrate the value of the PMI program in providing a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.  “I fully expected to learn what I didn't remember or learn,” wrote one participant. “I've learned many new things with greater detail in many concepts.”  Another wrote, “I think the PMI experience is an extremely valuable experience for ALL teachers and it clearly gave me and others a more definitive realization of the skills and concepts that we in elementary start developing.”  As to gaining new views on teaching, one participant wrote, “I learned a lot about math and a lot about teaching.  I have a new appreciation for how my students feel when learning new concepts and feel that I have a better understanding to help them work through their misunderstandings.”

There were quantifiable gains as well.  Participants in the summer 2013 workshop were asked to complete a pre-workshop assessment on the first day and a post-workshop assessment on the last day; statistically significant quantitative improvement was made in computational fluency.

The summer workshop structure was also well received. “We were so focused, determined, and engaged that time passed quickly.  I looked forward to coming back each day,” one teacher wrote. Another participant said, ”The environment at PMI allowed me to learn in a way that made sense to me while still gaining new strategies to add to my bag of tricks.”  Perhaps the best summary is the following: “The overall value of PMI was very high.  Although applying some of the math concepts was a tremendous struggle, I have no regrets about investing two weeks of my summer vacation to the workshop.”

A follow-up session is planned for late October to find how the participants are applying their new expertise in their classrooms.

PMI wishes to continue to offer content-based professional development workshops for elementary school teachers, similar to those offered in Summer 2013.  These workshops could take various forms, depending on availability of funding.  Workshops could continue to be provided on the University Park campus, but could also be done at other Penn State facilities around the state.  In the future, the PMI team hopes to develop new workshops to focus on mathematical topics like geometry and statistics.

For more information on the PMI program, visit http://sites.psu.edu/PennMathInit/


[ Andrew Baxter ]

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