Changing the Way Mathematics Is Taught
“There have been great strides in inviting everyone to do math,” says Eric Cordero-Siy. But there’s still work to do.
A clinical assistant professor in the Mathematics Education program, Eric Cordero-Siy works to support elementary teachers in developing lessons that advance mathematical sense-making among their students, particularly through the use of drawings and other informal representations. Along with other researchers and school partners, he conducts job-embedded, adaptive professional development that focuses on in-the-moment decision making by teachers. He also supports teachers in enacting equitable, justice-oriented mathematics teaching practices, and is working on liberatory practices that confront power and oppression in ways educational research is conducted.
Prior to joining BU Wheelock, Cordero-Siy was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Georgia. He is also a former high school mathematics teacher with experience teaching in New York, Georgia, and the Philippines.
Question: How did you become interested in math education and how does that influence your work today?
Cordero-Siy: I took an Algebra 2 class that was taught using very procedural methods. To make sense of what was happening in class, I ended up drawing out my thinking through math drawings on the margins of my textbook. The drawings not only helped me, but they also helped some of my classmates. I enjoyed helping my classmates, which led to my decision to enroll in my teaching program.
The work I am currently doing is exploring how people use drawings in math. My usual prompt is not to solve the problem, but instead to ask people to draw out their thinking. My current work studies how we can incorporate more drawings into K–8 math classrooms.
Question: How has the field of mathematics education change—or not changed—over time?
Cordero-Siy: One of the positive changes about the way teachers are being prepared to teach math is shifting away from the Initiate, Respond, Evaluate (IRE) pattern. Instead of evaluating, I say “probe” or engage other people in the conversation. We want people to be thinkers and sense makers, not calculators or blind rule followers.
That has been a good development from some math reform, but everything else has largely remained the same. For example, if you look at a textbook now and a textbook from 1983, they roughly look and feel the same. Additionally, math is gendered and racialized—young girls especially are told not to pursue STEM fields for different reasons. There have been great strides in inviting everyone to do math, but mathematicians still “look the same.”
There are also a lot of systemic barriers and beliefs that we hold that are invisible, and it is difficult when negotiating old systems with new practices. I’m still left wondering: How can we radically change school mathematics and the way we do research if it has not proffered any fundamental changes? Do we tinker or dismantle? This work will take a lot of imagination moving forward.
Question: What is your current research focus?
Cordero-Siy: I am intrigued by how teachers shift what they normally do to incorporate something novel. There is a process of negotiation that happens because teachers are balancing a multitude of factors and commitments. For instance, I am committed to using drawings because of my experience. However, I am also committed to the school that has a culture of testing, and I need to get through the material. I also have a commitment to the different ways students and their families do mathematics. All these commitments influence teachers’ decisions.
It is important to ask which commitments teachers are drawn to in the moments of instruction. We make decisions from second to second, but the rationale behind those decisions is mostly invisible to the class. I would like to know how teachers make sense and negotiate the commitments and the eventual action. As an example, I like a procedure called a teacher timeout. If I am in a class with other teachers, we can pause the lesson and say, “teacher timeout,” and pause the lesson and talk through what we are thinking. The students are still in the classroom and listening to the our decision-making process—and might even weigh in on the process. These teacher timeouts are a way of getting that “in that moment” thinking that is more faithful to that moment itself.
Question: How do you engage teachers in your research?
Cordero-Siy: It’s important to me to have a strong relationship with the people that work in the school or with the community it serves. Inviting teachers to talk about their thinking is not part of our culture. This is because you are essentially sharing your values with other people, which is difficult to do. When another adult is in the room, it feels like surveillance.
I also try to humanize research when I write about teachers by acknowledging that I’m writing about a very small sliver of a person. My relationship with teachers encompasses more than just my purpose as a researcher. My commitments lie with the teachers, students, and their communities first before the academic field.