Playful Mathematics Learning

I have had the great pleasure of spending the last several days at the Minnesota State Fair.

math on a stick

My colleague Melissa Gresalfi and I got a National Science Foundation grant to study a very special exhibit there called Math On-A-Stick. We have an awesome team of graduate students helping us with the research. They are Lara Heiberger, Panchompoo Fai Wisittanawat, Kate Chapman, and Amanda Bell.

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Math On-A-Stick is the brainchild of Christopher Danielson,  educator, promoter of talking math with your kids, and mathematical toy maker.

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That is Christopher on the right. The woman in the pink jacket is a former math teacher. She made the beautiful quilt for Math On-A-Stick.

The exhibit is just a delight. Not only is it a lovely respite in a shady, relatively quiet corner of the fairgrounds, it is filled with math play. Here are a few of the stations in the exhibit.

On the left is a tile station. The tiles are half black, half colored, and children can make all kinds of patterns with them. The center image comes from the pentagon station. I could spend all day there myself. I made that creation. On the right are tessalating lizards and turtles.

Everyday there are visiting mathematicians and mathematical artists. The first day I was there, Megan Schmidt brought some of her spiral magic. Yesterday were hexaflexagons.

Today, Christopher was the Visiting Mathematician. He built a giant pattern machine that children could play with. It is made up of little “pattern machines,” and the buttons pop up and down, making a satisfying clicking noise.

Melissa and I are interested in studying two things about children’s encounters with the exhibit. First, we are interested in the design, investigating how the various activities support mathematical interactions between children, the exhibit, the mathematics educators, parents –– and each other. Second, we are interested in children’s engagement. We want to examine how the children engage with different parts of the exhibit, looking for relationships among children’s ideas about mathematics, reported experiences in math class, and the exhibit design.

Our primary data come from recordings the kids make while they are playing. We outfit them with GoPro cameras so we can see how they interact with the exhibit, recording their interactions, their general gaze, and the time they spend at the various stations.

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Melissa and Fai set up a stationary camera, while Lara pretends to be a kid at play.


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A couple of kids getting outfitted with GoPros

This is supplemented by entry and exit surveys, brief interviews, and stationary recordings of the stations (e.g. a camera positioned at the Pentagons so we can see how a cross section of children play with that station and compare that to the activity of our focal children).

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Data collection station. It’s a well oiled machine.

We weren’t sure how kids would feel about us approaching them and asking them to wear the cameras on their heads. It turns out that they love it. They are really happy to share, as are the amazing volunteers, who have been very agreeable to getting captured in the video footage as the children play.

Our research findings will help us identify more ways to make mathematics play a part of instruction. Already, many children are telling us that Math On-A-Stick math is different than what they do in school –– even kids who are inventing and problem solving in impressive and novel ways. We are looking forward to analyzing the hundreds of hours of data we collect and sharing what we learn with all of you.

 

Renegotiating Classroom Treaties

Many classrooms are governed by tacitly negotiated treaties. That is, students trade in their compliance and cooperation –– student behaviors that alleviate the challenges of crowded classrooms ––  for minimal demands for engagement by the teacher. When I have worked with teachers trying out open-ended tasks for the first time, I will often hear about “pushback” or “resistance” from the students: “I tried using this activity but the kids balked. They complained the whole time and refused to engage.”

These student responses indicate that teachers are violating their part of the treaty by going beyond minimal demands for engagement and increasing intellectual press. Put differently, by using an open-ended task, teachers raise the social risk, leaving students open to judgment since they can not rely on the usual rituals of math class to hide their uncertainty. Treaties may, as their name suggests, keep the peace, but they reflect norms of minimal engagement that interfere with deeper learning.

In my own observations, I see teachers struggle to move students past their initial reluctance to participate and make it clear that active involvement is required in their classrooms. Renegotiating classroom treaties requires a clear vision for what student participation can look like, structures to support that vision, along with the determination to see it through. The teachers I interviewed for my forthcoming book all emphasize how critical the first days are for setting these expectations for their students, particularly since their expectations may differ from what students are used to in math class. “It’s entirely intentional that I begin setting norms and structures on the first day of school,” Fawn explains. By launching the new school year by showing students what it means to do math in her class, Fawn renegotiates the classroom treaty through norms and structures, introducing the Visual Pattern and other discourse routines from the start. She says, “I need to provide students with ample opportunities to experience the culture that we have set up. We need to establish and maintain a culture that’s safe for sharing and discussing mathematics, safe for making mistakes, and a culture that honors each person’s right to contribute. There needs to be a firm belief among everyone that mathematics is a vital social endeavor. Building this culture takes time.”
Starting the school year with clear expectations is important, but guiding individual students’ participation is an ongoing project. The teachers I interviewed have numerous strategies for monitoring and building positive participation throughout the year. Students students who hide or students who dominate make for uneven participation. The teachers describe how they contend with these inevitable situations.
When figuring out how to respond to quiet students, the teachers try to understand the nature of students’ limited participation. Not all quiet students are quiet for the same reasons. At times, quietness is rooted in temperament: some students inclined to hang back until they feel confident about what is going on, but they are tracking everything in class. These students do not contribute frequently, but, when they do, their contributions add a lot to conversations. This kind of quiet is less of a concern and can even be acknowledged: “Raymond, you don’t talk a lot, but when you do, I always love hearing what you have to say.”
Other times, quietness signals students’ lack confidence. That is, students indicate some understanding in their work or small group conversations, but they do not have the confidence to participate in public conversations. With these students, the teachers seek out individual conversations. Chris calls these doorway talks, while Peg calls them sidebars. (“Trying to deal with calculators and rulers at the end of class, I couldn’t make it to the doorway!” Peg tells me when I note the different names.) “I might say to a kid, ‘You know, you had really good ideas today, and I would have loved to have heard more of them in the conversation we had a the end. I think you have a lot more to contribute than you give yourself credit for.’” Sometimes, there are ways of encouraging good ideas to become public that do not directly address the student. Chris explains that he might say something like, “I haven’t heard from this corner of the room.” He then asks other students to hold their ideas while waiting for a contribution from the quiet group.

Of course, some students are quiet because they really do not know what is going on. This could be due to a language issue, in which case, the teacher needs to modify instruction to give them more access to the ideas. If there are other learning issues going on, this might suggest the need to check in with colleagues about the students performance in previous years or in other subjects.

eager-students
Talkative students pose another kind of challenge to the expectation that everyone participates.  On the one hand, they can provide wonderful models of sharing their thinking. They can be the “brave volunteers” who explore their thinking publicly, and teachers can lean on them to get conversations started. On the other hand, they can be domineering, making it difficult for other students to get a word in. The quiet students who temperamentally need to think before they speak have their counterparts in some talkative students: these are the students who think by talking. Asking for their silence sometimes gets heard as asking them not to think. When I have had students like that in my own classes, I make sure to assure them that I value their engagement but that I need them to find other strategies for processing so that other students can be heard. Sometimes, students with impaired executive functioning, like those with ADD, have a hard time with the turn-taking aspect of classroom dialogue, so not only do they talk a lot sometimes, they struggle to take turns. Again, teachers can respond by valuing students’ ideas while helping them participate more effectively: “I know you get excited, but we need to take turns so that we can hear each other.” Finally, domineering behavior can get expressed through a lot of talking: students who are highly confident in their understanding and want to explain to others. Teachers need to judge the extent to which this is altruistic, a sense of trying to share knowledge, and the extent to which it shuts conversations down. In the first case, students can be coached towards asking questions of their classmates, channeling their impulse to talk into something constructive. In the second case, the dominance can be corrosive to the classroom culture and the students might need stronger redirection. For all of this feedback, similar strategies of direct address (via sidebars or doorway talks) and indirect address (“Let’s hear from somebody else”) can help teachers manage participation.

What Does It Mean to Study Teachers’ Learning from a Sociocultural Perspective?

I try to be a plain-talking academic when I engage in the public realm of social media. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I find myself wanting to use academic jargon. My goal in writing this blog is to have conversations with both educators and researchers, so I think it is okay to have “turns” of conversation that lean a little more on my research voice than my educator voice.

Sociocultural is jargon word that I have wanted to invoke from time to time when talking to my practitioner friends. In particular, the research I do uses sociocultural learning theories as a way of describing both how students and teachers learn.

But what does that mean? In order to understand, you need a little history on how we have come to think about learning the way we do.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. research on learning was dominated by behaviorism. Seeking a rigorous empirical basis for a study of behavior, researchers like E.L. Thorndike and B.F. Skinner sought to explain how learning happened by documenting what they could see empirically.

Out of this theory, we have ideas like operant conditioning, where actions are shaped by stimulus and responses in the environment to ultimately change behavior. Skinner famously made little operant conditioning chambers called “Skinner boxes” that successfully “taught” pigeons to dance. Through the boxes, food was dispensed in response to the pigeon’s movements. If he turned his head to the left –– the stimulus –– he would get a food pellet –– the response. The next time, he had to turn his head a little further to get his food. Eventually, through operant conditioning, the pigeon learned to turn in a full circle –– to “dance” –– to get food.

dancing pigeons

Behaviorism explained some forms of learning, but it couldn’t explain everything. In the 1950s, the cognitive revolution began. Researchers like Jerome Bruner began to critique behaviorism, noting that a sole focus on behavior precluded a study of how people created meaning, a central question in understanding why people do what they do. Researchers realized they could do empirical studies that included a theory of the mind. Using methods like case studies and talk aloud protocols, investigators could examine how people made sense of their activities in the world.

Cognitive science, as it came to be called, led to important insights like schema theory and conceptions. A schema is a general system for understanding how knowledge is represented and how it is used.

Researchers can look for evidence of different schemata (the plural of schema). Like the behaviorists, they observed what people did to understanding learning. However, they augmented this by asking people to explain their thinking through interviews and surveys.

To give an example of a schema, let’s take the word “dog.” When I say “dog” what do you imagine?

You probably think of four-legged animals that bark, are furry, have tails. But how do you know that these are all dogs?


How do you know that these are not?


This is the question that underlies the idea of schemata.

The examination of schemata started to point to the importance of culture. Schemata are closely related to prototypes. So, for example, when I say the word “furniture” what do you think of?

Linguists have found that when you say the word “furniture” to Americans, they think the best examples are chair and sofa.

When you say the word “möbel” to Germans, however, they think the best examples are bed and table. Our schemata and our prototypes –– the building blocks of concepts in the world –– are culturally specific.

By the early 1990s, this increasing recognition of the importance of language, culture, and context shifted our ideas about learning yet again. Language and culture were not just the setting for development and thinking –– some kind of external variable to be controlled for –– they were, in fact, fundamental components of these mental processes. This insight meant that, to explain some learning phenomena, researchers needed to do more than describe mental structures.

This required another broadening of research methods. Using linguistics, anthropology, and sociology, learning researchers wanted to account for how concepts stretched beyond individual minds and into the world. Deeply influenced by Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, researchers working in this sociocultural tradition examined learning as it happened in interactions in the world, requiring new units of analysis. That is, instead of studying individuals as they learned, researchers sought ways to study individuals in context.

My own research takes up these sociocultural insights to re-think how we study teacher learning. Let me paint a bit of a picture for you about the intellectual traditions that shape my work.

First, when I entered my doctoral program at UC Berkeley in the mid-1990s, debates between cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on learning were quite active in my courses and in research groups. Although most arguments centered on questions of student learning, there was a growing interest in what was often called “out-of-school learning.” Influenced by anthropological researchers like Jean Lave, a small group of scholars studied workplace learning, a particularly pressing topic in our modern information economy, where workers must constantly adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Meanwhile, in educational policy studies, there was a growing recognition that research on school organization, curriculum, and teacher professional development had overlooked a central question: How do teachers’ learn? Since almost all school improvement efforts want to improve instructional quality –– through curricular reform, changes in scheduling or assessment techniques –– they all depend on what happens inside of classrooms. And that, of course, depends on what happens with teachers.

For this reason, educational policy scholars like Judith Warren Little and Mike Knapp were recognizing that teachers’ learning is an underanalyzed component of any efforts at school change or instructional improvement. Yet it was not central to policy designs –– let alone to analyses of their effectiveness.

The moment was ripe for somebody to connect these ideas. My work starts with the policy-based observation that designs for instructional change must consider teacher learning. I then use methods and insights from sociocultural theories of learning to examine how teachers’ learning happens in the school as a workplace. As the sociocultural theorists suggest, what teachers know and learn is not solely a product of what is in their individual heads.

Concepts for teaching draw on culturally specific practices and language in the world. For instance, in the U.S., we often start grouping children by ability levels at a very young age. The concept of a “high ability 6 year old” makes sense for American teachers in a way that it would not to teachers in countries that do not track in the elementary years. There are consequences to that concept having social meaning, as educators make decisions about their schools and classrooms and parents advocate for certain experiences.

By using sociocultural perspectives to explain teachers’ learning, my research is culturally specific and theoretically specific. Although the details of what I find about U.S. teachers may not generalize to other countries, it is my hope that my descriptions of teachers’ learning can be more generalizable.