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BU’s Project Challenge Has ‘Exponential’ Promise

Part one: Mathematics as a second language

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. Raul, 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 Raul just said?” As she’s speaking, a different student raises his hand. He doesn’t agree with Sarita, but does agree with Raul. 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.”

Suzanne Chapin (SED’85,’87), an associate professor of math education at SED, had been working in Chelsea since the early 1990s as part of the BU team that took over management of the schools in a partnership agreement with the Chelsea School Committee. She wanted to devise a program to help students with potential talent in math and to change the culture of learning in schools, “where being smart was not cool,” a common problem not limited to urban school districts.

Working with Cathy O’Connor, an SED associate professor of linguistics, Chapin decided to take an unconventional approach. It’s often thought that a lack of English skills isn’t necessarily a problem in mathematics education, because math deals only with numbers. “We believe to become successful users of mathematics, students need to articulate what they know and explain their thinking and reasoning — and they need to be as conversant as possible in English,” Chapin explains. “So we developed a language-intensive math program, in which we bombarded children with language and asked them to talk all the time about mathematics, to write about it, and use correct mathematical vocabulary.”

Funded by several grants, they chose 100 students, about 20 percent of Chelsea’s fourth graders, based on a nonverbal abilities test, teacher recommendations, and grades. While they were looking for students who did well, they also chose more than 50 students who scored as average on the various measures to reflect the gender and racial balance of the entire grade in the Project Challenge classrooms. Chapin and O’Connor trained the teachers, working closely with them in the classrooms as the program evolved. Each year, they added a new grade, until there were classes from fourth through seventh grades. Now some 450 children in Chelsea are enrolled in Project Challenge, and the program is run entirely by the Chelsea school system.

The fourth graders who started the program in 1998 are now seniors in high school, and Chapin recently began follow-up research to track those students. The results won’t be in for a few more months, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that the discourse-intensive math classes have paid off.

“Right before Christmas I visited an AP calculus course for seniors and a pre-calc class for juniors,” Chapin says. “It was great fun to see huge numbers of students who had been in our program in elementary and middle school and hear what they are planning to do. One student broke my heart — he said he was going to study math in college because of us. Others told me they were going on to college because of this program.”

It’s all the more encouraging given that almost none of the students planned to attend college when they were first enrolled in the program. “That to me is a huge difference, just changing their aspirations,” Chapin says. “I think back to when my children were in fourth grade. They knew they were going college. It was just what you do. So a very nice consequence of the project was changing the culture.”

You’re asking me?

Chapin and O’Connor didn’t develop the discourse-intensive mathematics in a vacuum. O’Connor points to the Algebra Project, created by Bob Moses in Cambridge. He had been a civil rights organizer in the 1960s and, O’Connor says, “saw that certain kinds of group discussion were incredibly powerful in helping people clarify their ideas and find a voice to speak about them publicly.” When he started the Algebra Project, to help inner city and rural students achieve mathematics literacy, “he made discussion in mathematics class a central component for that reason.” Observing one of the first teachers he trained, she saw how this approach helped kids who tend to think that math and science are not for them. “It changes their view of themselves,” she says.

In the beginning, the project in Chelsea faced its own challenges. “It was a hesitant, slow-going process of helping kids not only do the mathematics, but understand how the mathematics worked, and continually challenging them with harder and harder problems,” Chapin says. Teachers had to be carefully trained to make the class discussions work, using “talk moves,” such as restating a student’s answer and asking if it was a correct interpretation, eliciting a student’s reasoning, and asking students to comment on one another’s interpretations. Some parents initially complained about too much homework, according to Bourque, but those objections withered when test results came in. It was hard to argue with the high scores that Project Challenge kids received on the MCAS — Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — the standardized tests that were just being introduced in public schools across the commonwealth. After three years, for example, more than 40 percent of the project’s students scored Advanced in the math MCAS, versus 12 percent in the state.

What’s singular about the Project Challenge approach to math education is how much talk — Chapin calls it accountable talk, using a term originated by leading education researcher Lauren Resnick — goes on. In a standard math class, the teacher might define, say, integers, give some examples, and ask several students for other examples. But in the Project Challenge math class, the teacher would first present students with some examples of integers — and things that weren’t — and ask them to reason inductively to come up with a general definition of an integer. “We’d have children talk about what they think integers are, and we’d ask for new examples. The most important part of this discussion is requiring students to justify why they think positive 3, for example, is an integer,” Chapin says. “You are constantly asking students to talk about what they see, what they notice, what they understand, as you are giving them important content and explaining what these math vocabulary words mean.”

Chapin and O’Connor found that in regular classrooms, teachers define terms very clearly and then start using those words, but students often still don’t know what they mean. “They are hearing these words, but concepts associated with them are fuzzy,” Chapin says. “So there are ways we talk about these different aspects, and it’s that talk that brings it to the surface, gives students more time to hear, to reflect, to think about the ideas.”

Another advantage of the talk system is that teachers quickly find out how much each student understands. “In most classrooms, teachers have no idea who understands what until they give a quiz,” O’Connor notes. Having a real-time measure means more targeted teaching, making sure the students are at the same level of understanding.

Benefits extend far beyond mathematics. “If the teacher is asking what you think about something and why, that has a very powerful effect on kids, especially kids who have not had a lot of adults asking them what they think about things,” says O’Connor, pointing out that many students in Chelsea come from households with just such a family dynamic. “The first time they get asked, ‘Why do you think such and such?’ they get this look — ‘You’re asking me?!’”

An unexpected result of the talk-intensive approach was that English Language Arts scores rose for Project Challenge kids. In a study that matched students in Project Challenge with students in regular classrooms, Chapin and O’Connor found that the Project Challenge students scored higher on average than matched students not in the program, and the differences emerged in less than a year. “It’s not that mysterious a process,” O’Connor says. “When you start to realize people are going to listen to you and take you seriously and try to figure out what you mean, you learn to articulate your thoughts — and come to understand the material better.”

“It reframed much of what urban educators thought our students could do,” says Bourque. “It was a breath of fresh air for us. That’s why we continue to sustain it.”

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

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of

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