Rebekah Elliott loved math as a kid. Yet, she noticed in her classes that most of the students were male. In fact, growing up Elliott saw math and science as two fields of study dominated by men. Despite that fact, many of her favorite math teachers were women. Elliott’s inspirational teachers and her drive to understand math led Elliott to study mathematics in college. “I had great role models and I wanted to prove that woman could do mathematics too. In college I knew I wanted to do something in math or science,” Elliott says.
In college Elliott found that she could use her mathematical knowledge to support others learning math and she decided to be a teacher. However, as a teacher Elliott encountered a problem that she had a hard time solving – whether or not her teaching was helping all her students truly understand math. This question brought her to graduate school, and the opportunity to immerse herself in this challenge.
“I needed to learn more about teaching and learning,” she says. “I had been a practicing teacher, but realized there were people who were trying to understand how children learn math and investigating teaching practices that support this learning. That was exciting to me.”
Now an associate professor of math education in Oregon State’s College of Education, Elliott is still focused on learning. Her goal is to deeply understand how students learn math, science, and engineering so that current and future teachers can be even more effective. She has partnered with colleagues at Oregon State and other universities across the country on projects directly aimed at this goal.
Two of her current projects – one with partner schools in Bend and one with a Eugene high school – bring teachers and researchers together to learn about pedagogy and their students while sharing their expertise with each other. Elliott and her colleagues are able to bring current pedagogical research to the discussion as a resource for teachers to engage in collaborative inquiry about their own teaching.
“One of the problems educators face is that they don’t get a lot of time to talk to one another about their work,” Elliott says. “What is potentially powerful is time for educators to share and talk about teaching practice in a really deep way that connects to how students learn math, science, or technical education,” says Elliott. ”
In an ongoing project in Bend, Elliott, OSU colleagues, and professional developers from Teacher’s Development Group, bring OSU math education preservice teachers together with experienced middle school teachers to investigate how students learn math. For example, the group of teachers will work on math problems together to build their understanding of math ideas in the curriculum and anticipate how middle school students think about the topics. Then one of the middle school teachers teaches a lesson using the school textbook to middle school students and incorporating the ideas developed through teacher collaboration. The other teachers observe the lesson, listen to students, and afterward reconvene to look at the student work from the lesson. Instead of “telling” students the mathematics in the lesson and hoping they make sense out of it, teachers in Bend are paying attention to how students are thinking about ideas. Elliott says, “Teachers are using students’ ideas to drive the mathematics.” It can be an eye-opening experience for a pre-service teacher who has a mathematics background, but not a pedagogy background, according to Elliott.
Bend teachers are engaged in long-term professional development that means they have the opportunity to examine students’ thinking over the course of a school year and across school years to talk about how it develops. “Bend teachers are engaged in a model of professional learning that exemplifies national recommendations this is one of the reasons we bring new teachers to the school. We want these new professionals to know what is possible in schools,” Elliott says.
In Eugene, Elliott and Dean Larry Flick are working with teachers across several content areas – math, science, and technical education. The idea is the same, to help students learn content more deeply and teachers to develop methods to support this learning, but complications that came to light in the process are invaluable to Elliott’s understanding of her work. For instance, the first year Elliott and Flick worked with teachers at the school, students took math only half the year – not enough time, to learn content deeply, according to Elliott.
During the second and third year of the project in Eugene, the school’s principal made changes to the curriculum to address the issues that became apparent: Math was taught for a full year, and students were assigned to a technical education and math teacher team who shared goals, lessons, and projects across content areas. It brought the team one step closer to being able to teach mathematics and technical subjects the way they wanted to. To Elliott, the idea of removing such complications is akin to peeling back the layers of an onion to uncover each new issue that can be addressed as teachers and principals collaborate on school improvement.
“Understanding how students learn math, science, and technical education including engineering is crucial in responding to a changing world especially when students in the U.S. are consistently reported to be falling behind in these subjects,” Elliott says. For her, it’s not just an economic issue, as many politicians and policy makers suggest. Elliott’s mission is to arm students with what they need as individuals to succeed in school and beyond.
Currently, Elliott is working with colleagues to enhance math and science teaching and learning in a broader network of districts by building on what they have learned while collaborating with their school partners. She is also finishing a 5-year, NSF-funded project on how “math leaders” facilitate colleagues’ learning mathematics for teaching. The project advances that teachers need opportunities in professional development to learn a specialized knowledge of mathematics, mathematics used in teaching, that math teachers typically don’t have the opportunity to learn while taking advanced mathematics. Elliott and her colleagues have developed ways to support teachers learning specialized mathematics in professional development. Elliott also suggests that the project has helped her understand a challenge she faced as a teacher -- wondering if her teaching methods were supporting all students’ learning. She says, “As a result of our research, I have different insights on the kind of knowledge and practices teachers need in order to develop all students’ mathematical understanding. I don’t have all the answers to the questions that sent me to graduate school, but I am learning more about them.”