Curry Professor Strives to Make Math More Relevant to Students

March 14, 2008 — In conventional mathematics classes, students learn rigid facts and skills, and are called on to use specified formulas to solve problems without necessarily demonstrating their grasp of concepts or theory. This type of rote learning has been highly criticized in the last few decades, resulting in dramatic changes in teaching and learning standards.

"In the traditional mathematics classroom, teaching is structured around analytical thinking, but teaching needs to also be socially and culturally relevant," said Robert Berry, assistant professor in the Curry School of Education. Berry's research carefully examines both the full context in which students are learning and their learning preferences in order to determine more effective teaching methods.

Berry is partnering with teachers to test his newly designed curriculum units in six rural and predominantly African-American classrooms in Virginia. The learning needs of students in the classrooms are quite varied, because the classrooms have just been "detracked." Tracking is a method of teaching that places students of similar ability in closed learning groups. Three of the classes are being taught in the usual manner, and three are using Berry's revamped curriculum.

The curriculum units are based on the integration of culturally relevant teaching and Robert Sternberg's "Theory of Successful Intelligence" which stresses the importance of teaching students to think analytically, creatively and practically. The lessons integrate culture, local context and social relevance with math. Local newspaper articles are used to get students thinking about everyday issues in mathematical terms. For instance, in a unit covering integers, teachers encourage conversations about the weather, including drought conditions, or about yard gains and losses in local high school football games. Students also learn through hands-on exercises and Web-based tools.

Berry notes that creativity is encouraged in the experimental classrooms. Students are asked to come up with songs or raps that help them remember math rules. And they help to identify and negotiate rules, as opposed to having rules set forth at the start of class, as in the control classrooms.

"We are designing units around topics that most people think can't be creative. I want to argue that even with the most mundane topic, you can still be creative in teaching," said Berry.

Though Berry has only completed analysis on one of three units of curriculum, students in the experimental group outperformed those in the control group by an average of 7.5 points — the difference of about one grade level. Interestingly, students in the experimental group tended to write and draw in the margins of their tests. Berry suggests that this creative action helped them recall what they had learned.

So far, Berry has found no significant difference between the performance of African-American and white students in the experimental group. He attributes this to the careful use of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics process standards, which include reasoning and proof, representation, communications, connections and problem-solving.

"If you teach the five process standards, you are meeting the needs of African-American students," says Berry. "My argument is that if you are doing the standards well, you are meeting the needs of all students. We have a model in place that is effective for all kids."