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2004 Inquiry Into Children’s Mathematical Thinking

2004 Inquiry Into Children’s Mathematical Thinking

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RUTH M. STEINBERG, SUSAN B. EMPSON and THOMAS P. CARPENTER
INQUIRY INTO CHILDREN’S MATHEMATICAL THINKINGAS A MEANS TO TEACHER CHANGE
ABSTRACT. In the context of U.S. and world wide educational reforms that requireteachers to understand and respond to student thinking about mathematics in new ways,ongoing learning from practice is a necessity. In this paper we report on this process forone teacher in one especially productive year of learning. This case study documents howMs. Statz’s engagement with children’s thinking changed dramatically in a period of onlya few months; observations and interviews several years later confirm she sustained thischange. Our analysis focuses on the mathematical discussions she had with her students,and suggests this talk with children about their thinking in instruction served both as anindex of change, and, in combination with other factors, as a mechanism for change. Weidentified four phases in Ms. Statz’s growth toward practical inquiry, distinguished by heruse of interactive talk with children. Motivating the evolution of phases were two sorts of mechanisms: scaffolded examination of her students’ thinking; and asking and answeringquestions about individual students’ thinking. Processes for generating and testing knowl-edge about children’s thinking ultimately became integrated into Ms. Statz’s instructionalpractices as she created opportunities for herself, and then students, to hear and respond tochildren’s thinking.KEY WORDS: discourse community, elementary mathematics, practical inquiry, teacherchange, teacher learning, teacher reflection
Mathematics educators have articulated a vision for teaching mathematicsthat includes engaging students in problem solving, mathematical argu-mentation, and reflective communication (NCTM, 1991, 2001). Calls forinstructional reform in mathematics have been accompanied by demands,in many countries, for radical changes in teaching practices. Many teachershave learned to teach in ways consistent with calls for reform (Cobb, Wood& Yackel, 1990; Cobb & McClain, 2001; Fennema et al., 1997; Hiebert,Carpenter, Fennema et al., 1997; Hiebert & Wearne, 1993; Jaworski, Wood& Dawson, 1999; Schifter & Fosnot, 1993; Sullivan & Mousley, 2001).Without attention to how teachers learn, however, our understanding of instructional reform is seriously incomplete (Franke, Carpenter, Levi &Fennema, 2001; Hammer & Schifter, 2001; Richardson & Placier, 2001;Schön, 1983; Sherin, 2002).A small but growing body of research has focused on teacher learningas practical inquiry into the problems of teaching (Jaworski, 1998, 2001;
 Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education
7:
237–267, 2004.© 2004
Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
 
238
RUTH M. STEINBERG ET AL.
Lampert, 1985; Richardson, 1994; Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1991). Thisresearch has found that teachers who engage in practical inquiry are ableto change their teaching in ways that are sustainable and self generative(Franke, et al., 2001). There has been little research, however, on theprocess of change towards inquiry-oriented practice.In the current study, we focus on one teacher’s use of practitionerknowledge and research-based knowledge as she learned to integratepractical inquiry into her teaching. We focus in particular on the mathe-matical discussions she had with her students, and argue that this talk withchildren about their thinking during instruction served both as an index of change, and, in combination with other factors, as amechanism for change.We concentrate on this latter feature of teacher-student talk because, wecontend, it provides insight into the nature of generative change (Franke etal., 2001) in teaching.This teacher’s mature teaching can be characterized as an integra-tion of inquiry and instruction, in which both she and students learned.Although the process of change we have documented does not necessarilyrepresent the path to practical inquiry that all teachers should take, it lendsuseful insight into how a teacher can combine practitioner knowledge andresearch-based knowledge to ask and answer questions profitably aboutteaching and learning.The teacher, Kathy Statz,
1
taught mathematics using the preceptsof Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) (Carpenter & Fennema, 1992;Carpenter, Fennema, Franke, Levi & Empson, 1999; Carpenter, Fennema,Franke, Levi & Empson, 2002). CGI is a research and professional devel-opment program founded on the fact that children enter school with a richstore of informal knowledge that provides a basis for engaging in problemsolving. We draw on previous research that documents levels of teachers’engagement with children’s thinking in order to track Ms. Statz’s learning(Fennema et al., 1996; Franke et al., 2001; Simon & Schifter, 1991). Wego beyond documenting the fact of change to describe how she progressedfrom one level to the next, initially by reflecting on instruction as questionsabout her students’ thinking were posed for her and, later, by posing andanswering such questions herself. Changes in her practice accompaniedthese changes in her stance towards teaching.CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKResearch suggests that teachers learn a great deal from teaching, but thecontent of that learning varies from teacher to teacher (Richardson, 1990;Richardson & Placier, 2001). Conditions that appear to be most condu-
 
INQUIRY INTO CHILDREN’S THINKING
239cive to learning include: 1) membership in a “discourse community” thatprovides tools for framing and solving the problems of teaching (Ball,1996; Cobb & McClain, 2001; Stein, Silver & Smith, 1998; Wenger,1998); 2) processes for reflectively generating, debating and evaluatingnew knowledge and practices (Ball, 1996; Jaworski, 1988; Wilson &Berne, 1999; Wood, 2001); and 3) ownership of change, so that the prob-lems of teaching that change is meant to address are problems that teacherswant to solve and feel capable of solving (Loucks-Horsley & Steigelbauer,1991; Simon & Schifter, 1991).None of these conditions, alone or in combination, assures ongoingteacher learning. Perhaps the most important is teachers’ own stancetowards practice as inquiry (Jaworski, 1994; Schifter & Fosnot, 1993;Tom, 1985). This inquiry can take several forms. It can be exercised ininteraction with students and the curriculum (Sherin, 2002) or removedfrom classroom interactions, in reflection on action (Mewborn, 1999;Schön, 1983, 1987; Wood, 2001). Little (1999) noted that the “systematic,sustained study of student work, coupled with individual and collectiveefforts to figure out how that work results from the practices and choicesof teaching” may be one of the most powerful sites for teacher inquiry(p. 235). Student thinking is not the only focus possible, but it is onethat has proven productive for teachers and students (Carpenter, Fennema& Franke, 1996; Carpenter, Fennema, Peterson, Chiang & Loef, 1989;Schifter, 2001; Steinberg, Carpenter & Fennema, 1994; Tzur, 1999).Teachers who change in ways that embrace new knowledge and beliefsabout children’s problem solving do not necessarily sustain that changeor continue to change. Franke et al. (2001) found that the most profoundchange among a group of 22 CGI teachers occurred for those who engagedin practical inquiry into children’s thinking. Those 10 teachers, more thanthe rest, thought of the research-based framework for children’s problemsolving as “their own to create, adapt, and investigate(Franke et al.,2001, p. 683). Franke et al. (2001) called this learning “generative change”because teachers used what they knew to generate new knowledge throughpractical inquiry, and saw this inquiry as part of their identity as profes-sionals. In particular, 1) these teachers believed understanding children’sthinking was central to their work, and 2) their knowledge of children’sthinking went beyond the frameworks first presented to teachers in staff development four to eight years earlier.Not all teachers who use problem solving in teaching (e.g., NCTM,2000) take a stance of inquiry toward their practice. There are many profi-cient teachers whose instruction is based on problem solving but who donot engage in practical inquiry. However, as Franke and colleagues (2001)

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