Humanizing mathematics education

Everyone is capable of making sense of the mathematics around them, says Kristin Lesseig, who works to help teachers encourage mathematical reasoning and confidence in their students.

Try to figure out some everyday calculation, like how inflation has affected the price of cereal. If the person you’re talking to says, “I can’t do math,” it’s no surprise. People say that unapologetically all the time. If, on the other hand, the person says, “I can’t read,” it’s a shock.

Like reading, math is a necessary, everyday skill, and Kristin Lesseig would like to help students feel more confident in their mathematical abilities. A former math teacher who is now associate professor in the Department of Teaching & Learning at WSU Vancouver, Lesseig works toward humanizing mathematics education and supporting teachers to help students make sense of the mathematics around them. As she said, it starts with believing all students are capable.

At a time when numbers, data and algorithms dominate everyday life, contributing to a math-literate society has never been more critical. Lesseig’s research emphasizes mathematical reasoning in K-12 classrooms, which she describes as understanding the “hows” and “whys” behind the formulas and solving math problems through logical thinking—thereby learning skills that will carry into adult life. Lacking those reasoning skills harms society as well as the individual. Without that, “You don’t question, you just believe,” she said. “If you don’t own [that skill], you don’t even see yourself as capable in mathematics; you just memorize and think that’s the only way to do it, and it’s not true.”

Kristin Lesseig, Associate Professor College of Education

For a recent article, she and her co-author surveyed prospective math teachers about their approach to proof. Published in the International Journal of Mathematics Education in Science and Technology, the article is titled “Teaching mathematical proof at secondary school: an exploration of preservice teachers’ situative beliefs.” Students in STEM classes—another of Lesseig’s research areas—must be able to make sense of problems and logically reason through them, and their teachers must help them get there.

“Proof is often associated with a very formalistic procedure that is devoid of understanding, rather than a process through which one can logically reason about the truth or falsehood of a mathematical statement—and in the process develop a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts and conditions,” she said.

She also studies teachers’ attitudes about student thinking, with the hope that teachers will pay attention to how students think and use it to guide instruction. “The eventual goal is to broaden students’ and teachers’ (and the public’s) conceptions of mathematics teaching and learning—beyond just memorizing and mimicking procedures without understanding—and changing perceptions of who is capable of learning and doing mathematics,” she said.

Lesseig’s interest in teacher professional development developed during her 15-year career as a classroom mathematics teacher. In the process of helping colleagues implement more equitable teaching practices, “I got really excited about teacher learning and thought I need to know more about this and make a bigger impact,” she said.

A current project is particularly close to her heart. Lesseig is currently one of three co-investigators on a four year, $112 million National Science Foundation grant to prepare up to 24 Noyce Scholars as mathematics teachers. The project includes Scholars and mentor teachers in both Vancouver and Pullman. Five students formed the first cohort in 2021/22, and 8–10 are expected for the coming school year. “It’s all about supporting mathematics teachers to implement practices that attend to students and student thinking in the classroom,” she said, “and thinking about how to support teachers in doing that work.”

The Noyce program aims to increase the number of math and science teachers, particularly those from historically marginalized groups. The need is great. The Washington Professional Educator Standards Board has listed mathematics education as a shortage area in the state for the last 25 years, and the number of teachers receiving secondary mathematics endorsements has been dropping.Scholars work with mentors, engage in monthly workshops, learn to combat common misconceptions about mathematics and mathematics teaching, and are encouraged to develop collegial relationships with each other and the broader community. They are introduced to the principles of humanizing math education—something Lesseig and the grant’s principal investigator, Tarik Akmal, chair of the Department of Teaching & Learning at WSU Pullman, feel strongly about. “We are passionate about humanizing mathematics education and thinking about how to better prepare teachers to give all students experiences that challenge them intellectually and foster positive mathematical identities,” she said.

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