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BU’s Project Challenge Has ‘Exponential’ Promise

Part two: Equation + discussion = opportunity

Project Challenge teachers like Nancy Canavan Anderson (SED’97,’98, CAS’97) are constantly asking students to talk in class about mathematics. Anderson now teaches in Kingston, Mass. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The final grades are not in yet, but a mathematics program developed by two BU School of Education professors is clearly helping many students excel in the subject.

Project Challenge, developed by Suzanne Chapin (SED’85,’87), an associate professor of math education, and Cathy O’Connor, an associate professor of linguistics, makes talk in the classroom the central component of learning. The program helps students not only do the math, but understand how it works. One of the key approaches calls for teachers to make the class discussions work by restating a student’s answer and asking if it was a correct interpretation, eliciting his reasoning, and asking students to comment on one another’s interpretations. Chapin and O’Connor began in 1998 with fourth graders in the Chelsea, Mass., public schools. Today some 450 Chelsea students in grades four through seven are enrolled in the project.

On the 1998 MCAS — Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — math exam, at the end of their first year in the program, 57 percent of Project Challenge fourth graders scored Advanced or Proficient, compared to 38 percent for the entire state. After three years, at the end of sixth grade, 82 percent scored Advanced or Proficient, compared to 38 percent for the state as a whole. They also performed better than students from affluent suburbs, significantly outscoring Newton students, for example, in the 2001 MCAS math exams.

But Chapin and O’Connor wanted more proof. So they taught the same new material over three days to a Project Challenge class and a regular class and measured the results. “Doing this research is extremely difficult,” Chapin says. “You are trying to set up classrooms in which the mathematics is completely parallel, the instruction and information from the teacher is completely parallel.”

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, they ran the test with parallel sixth-grade classrooms on topics like fractions, integers, and ratios and proportions. The results backed their hypothesis: students who received the discourse-intensive instruction did better. “We found interesting differences in favor of those students who even with only three days of intense discussion outperformed students who were presented the exact same information using a much more traditional method,” Chapin says.

Several years ago, Chapin took a leave of absence from BU to return to teaching middle and high school students. “I really wanted to go back into the classroom and make sure that I was current in terms of what I was bringing to School of Education students,” she says. She also wanted to see if the talk-intensive method translated from an urban school to a very different setting: the Fay School, a boarding school in Southborough, Mass.

It wasn’t an easy sell at first. Teachers complained that “you can’t just put kids on the spot and make them talk about things, especially kids who struggle,” Chapin recalls. “They’re going to shut down on you.” As in Chelsea, there was a learning curve for teachers and students alike. “The greatest difficulty for the teachers is that they have no models for what this looks like in practice,” she says. “They can intellectualize what this is all about, but actually putting it in place and incorporating it into their daily practice is harder, simply because they have no vision of what it really looks like.” By visiting Chapin’s classroom and watching videotapes of Project Challenge classes, the Fay School teachers learned the techniques and took them into their own classrooms. After a while, she says, “the whole department was using discussions to support and promote learning in mathematics.”

Still, there are criticisms of the program. Some misunderstand it entirely, thinking that teachers who emphasize talk in math class are asking subjective questions like what’s your opinion about 4 times 7. It’s nothing like that, of course, although convincing some critics apparently isn’t as easy as it seems. Others complain that the program is too hard, for both teachers and students. “I find that problematic,” responds O’Connor. “It does take a lot of staff development. They need time in that first year or two to have someone really helping them with it.” But it’s worth the investment, she says.

Some have said that the best and brightest of Chelsea kids were chosen for the project, and it’s their innate intelligence winning out. But, as Chapin notes, the average kids who were placed in the classes to make up the gender and racial balance did equally well. “Overall, it’s definitely for your higher ability student,” says Mary Bourque, Chelsea’s assistant superintendent of schools. “But it’s also for students who might do poorly on standardized tests but actually have great mathematical ability. You put them into a high-motivation, high-expectation, rigorous program, and they do perform to a higher level than many of the teachers ever expected.”

Chapin and O’Connor say that a discourse-intensive math education program can be applied anywhere and to pretty much all children. Along with another Project Challenge teacher, Nancy Canavan Anderson (SED’97,’98, CAS’97), they wrote a book that describes the program and offers specific advice. Titled Classroom Discussion: Using Math Talk to Help Children Learn (Math Solutions), it’s been used in many other school districts, as far away as California. Chelsea schoolteachers trained in the method have also moved on to other schools in greater Boston, further spreading the word.

Chapin tells a story from the program’s early days that’s emblematic of its success in Chelsea. The teachers were concerned about the future of a certain student. “He was a really bright kid, but it was one of those things: can we help him go down a path so he sees that education offers him so many opportunities? We were really worried he was going to get involved in criminal activities.” He stayed in Project Challenge, earned advanced scores in the MCAS, and is a high honors student, she says. “He’s doing great.”

See yesterday’s
BU Today for part one of “BU’s Project Challenge Has ‘Exponential’ Promise.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of
Bostonia.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.