BU’s Project Challenge Has ‘Exponential’ Promise

By Taylor McNeil, BU Today

Students often work in pairs in Project Challenge classrooms and then explain in detail how they arrive at answers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Students often work in pairs in Project Challenge classrooms and then explain in detail how they arrive at answers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In a mathematics classroom at the Clark Avenue School in Chelsea, Mass., the sixth-graders are talking—a lot. Raúl, whose parents immigrated from Guatemala a few years ago, is seated with a partner, as are all the 24 kids. He’s explaining how he and his partner, an African-American girl named Roxanna (not their real names), decided whether a group of improper fractions could be rewritten as whole numbers or mixed numbers. He describes what method they used to decide this and why. The teacher, who doesn’t say if the answer is right or wrong, turns to another student and asks, “Sarita, do you agree with what Raúl just said?” As she’s speaking, a different student raises his hand. He doesn’t agree with Sarita, but does agree with Raúl. The discussion continues until there’s consensus around the right answer. By the end of the period, nearly every child has spoken.

The teaching tactic might seem laborious, and it’s easy to think the children would be bored, but they are paying close attention. And they need to—it’s not possible to keep up otherwise. More than that, they seem to enjoy the process, at least as much as any sixth-grader is likely to.

The students are taking part in Project Challenge, a mathematics program developed by two School of Education professors that makes talk in the classroom the central component of learning. The project began with a question: is it possible to challenge students to excel in mathematics in urban schools where the majority of students learned English as a second language? To many people’s surprise, the answer is a resounding yes. After three years, Project Challenge students were scoring in the 90th percentile on standardized math tests, even better than their counterparts in wealthy Boston suburbs. Not only that, but their English and language arts scores shot up. “The Project Challenge program pushes and challenges flexible mathematical thought,” says Mary Bourque, assistant superintendent of the Chelsea schools. “The students are not simply memorizing procedures and computation; they are really delving into conceptual understanding.”

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