Dr. Lynsey Gibbons’s Math Labs provides space for teachers to innovate and collaborate

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Teachers at the Edison School participate in Math Labs.

“I’m not a math person.” This sentiment is part of a culture that Karen Levin says we’ve largely embraced as a country. “If you’re at a dinner party and the bill comes, it’s acceptable for you to say, ‘Oh I’m not good at math, someone else do the tip.’ But it wouldn’t be as acceptable to say something like, ‘I can’t read.’”

Ms. Levin, the Director of an EdVestors’s initiative called Zeroing in on Mathematics, says that it’s become more or less socially acceptable, primarily for adults, to dismiss these sorts of situations by admitting to their mathematical shortcomings.

She said this gap in proficiency occurs in school-aged children as well, including in Boston where only one third of eighth grade students had previously demonstrated grade-level proficiency in math.

“This shuts the doors on a lot of students for certain opportunities,” Ms. Levin said. “They can’t necessarily be nurses or doctors or engineers or go on to business school if they don’t have that math proficiency.”

To counteract this problem, EdVestors, a school improvement organization, has launched and invested in a number of initiatives aimed at “ensuring more students are prepared for rigorous high school academics and success in college and career.”

One such initiative that they support comes from School of Education Assistant Professor Lynsey Gibbons, whose Math Labs program offers a unique professional learning design for teachers. The design, called “Math Labs” emphasizes student learning as well as collaboration between teachers.

“Part of my research centers on the question of ‘How do we reorganize the way that teachers get to learn together,’” Dr. Gibbons said. “One of the ways is through this professional learning design.”

Math Labs are all about bringing teachers together, Dr. Gibbons explained, to discuss, facilitate, and debrief specific lessons in mathematics. Dr. Gibbons learned about Math Labs while completing a postdoctoral fellowship under the guidance of Elham Kazemi at the University of Washington. Currently, Math Labs are being implemented in schools in Boston, Chelsea, and Wellesley.

“We go through this learning cycle together,” Dr. Gibbons explained. “A lot of professional development designs take place away from the classroom and then as a teacher you go back on your own and try to incorporate what you learned by yourself, and you hope that it works. But, you typically don’t have anyone to reflect with to see whether or not it actually did.”

In contrast, Math Labs enable teachers to first talk about a certain instructional activity or teaching practice, co-plan a lesson together, and then engage in teaching the lesson together with their own students. The tone of teaching together is one of experimentation and playful curiosity about students thinking.  One of the teachers typically begins the lesson and others interject opportunistically as the lesson unfolds, giving teachers opportunities to learn about and refine their teaching in-the-moment. Afterwards, the teachers come back together to discuss and reflect on the lesson.

“Teachers rarely get opportunities to see each other teach,” Dr. Gibbons said. “Being able to teach together allows them to begin to develop shared practices around things like when to call on students, when to represent students’ ideas on the board, when to use certain discourse moves.”

She added that this allows teachers to not only try out new instructional strategies, but also to thoughtfully analyze and gather input on if and how they work. This has become increasingly important in the wake of the Common Core.

“What’s being asked of teachers through the Common Core is complex,” Dr. Gibbons said. “The Common Core introduced standards for mathematical practices, which aims to position kids as sense-makers and for teachers to support kids to develop identities as mathematical thinkers. In Math Labs, for example, we’re working toward supporting kids as they read a problem, make sense of what the problem is asking, apply a strategy that they’re comfortable with, and be able to articulate to their classmates what they did and why.”

For a veteran teacher like Jessica Baldi, Math Labs offers an environment in which she can comfortably practice and process around new ways of teaching.

“Math is the one subject that I feel very unsettled about when I’m teaching it,” Ms. Baldi said.  She has been teaching fourth grade at the Murphy School in Boston for over fifteen years. “When I first started teaching, I taught math the way I learned it: here’s a problem, I’m going to show you how to solve it, and then we’ll move on to the next one. There was really no discussion.”

Now, Ms. Baldi added, participating in Math Labs has enabled her to learn from her colleagues how to facilitate more discussion amongst her students in regards to various mathematical concepts.

“I’m able to hear how other teachers move the students forward or move the conversations forward,” Ms. Baldi said. “I sit there and I take notes when I’m in another teacher’s classroom on what’s being said and the discourse that’s being used because that’s something I struggle with on my own.”

Lisa Nguyen Batista, a colleague of Ms. Baldi’s, spoke about how Math Labs impacted her transition to teaching at the Murphy School.

“During Math Labs we worked in grade level teams, and as a newbie it was a great opportunity for me to build camaraderie with the other fourth grade teachers, many of whom have been at the Murphy for a long time,” Ms. Batista said.

She expressed sentiments similar to her colleague Ms. Baldi, stating that the time spent with her fellow teachers has encouraged her mastery of certain teaching tools.

“I’m able to see the ways in which the other teachers are teaching concepts, and the way they’re talking about them,” Ms. Batista said. “Even down to establishing specific vocabulary that we will all use to talk about something like fractions.”

She continued that research she and her colleagues have discussed has illustrated the benefit, for student learning, to use the terminology “four one-fourth sized pieces” rather than just saying “four-fourths.”

“This was new language to me and it helped to be able to talk through it in Math Labs and try it out with students,” Ms. Batista said.

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A daily Math Labs agenda.

Establishing these shared practices, in addition to shared routines, is something that Assistant Director for Mathematics in Boston Public Schools Peter Thorlichen emphasized as a goal in utilizing Math Labs.

“We focus in on the way we go about demonstrating mathematical content,” Mr. Thorlichen said. “So for example giving students a problem, giving them a few minutes to think about it. Then students signal when they’re ready to share an answer, and answers are taken neutrally whether they’re correct or incorrect.”

He explained that oftentimes, it’s the incorrect answers that offer a learning opportunity and discussion about misconceptions within a certain mathematical operation. Math Labs encourages teachers to make space for that discussion in their classrooms.

“It’s really given us an opportunity to work with groups of teachers to think more deeply about the mathematical concepts they’re teaching,” Mr. Thorlichen said. “It encourages them to think about it from the perspective of the students. How do students come to learn these concepts? It places a premium on listening carefully to student thinking and responding to that thinking.”

He added that the hope is to track the effects of Math Labs both on teaching and learning over time, and that anecdotally he has seen students within the schools utilizing Math Labs open up more to share their thinking, and to respond to strategies that their peers suggest.

“After engaging in Math Labs, I see more teachers stepping outside of their comfort zone and taking more of a back seat in their classroom,” Mathematics Coach Carla Zils said. Ms. Zils works with teachers at the Edison School in Boston. “The work becomes more student-centric rather than teacher-centric.”

She added that the work she has engaged in through Math Labs has demonstrated the necessity of having a collaborative space for teachers to work together.

“It’s almost as if they’ve been given permission to slow down,” Ms. Zils said. “They’re taking more time to hear strategies that their students are using in math and they’re taking more time to hear and recognize their students’ work. It’s inspiring for them.” 

In addition to receiving funding from EdVestors, Math Labs is also funded by a grant from the BU Consortium.

Lisa Randall