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Connected Teaching in K-12 Mathematics

Connected Teaching in K-12 Mathematics

Math Forum (http://mathforum.org) is an online community that supports a connected teaching approach to improving K-12 mathematics education. Math Forum began at Swarthmore College in 1992, and Drexel University School of Education took over the project in 1996 and continues to manage it today. Steve Weimer, director of the project, reports that the site supports between 2 and 3 million visits (extended sessions with participants) per month.

The Math Forum website features portals and interactive content for diverse members of the education community. For educators, it provides valuable instructional resources, including “Math Tools,” a searchable community library of interactive lessons, activities, and support materials. Educators can also consult a library of articles on current issues in mathematics education and discuss challenges in online forums (Teacher2Teacher). Educators pose questions, which are answered by program associates, who then post the thread for public comment. Some conversations continue this way for years, as is the case with a still-active thread begun in 1999 when an educator requested suggestions for interesting ways to use Math Forum as a virtual community (Herrick, 2009).

The activity level on the Teacher2Teacher portion of the Math Forum site speaks to its strength. Between 200 and 300 trained experts are behind the collective identity of Dr. Math, with about 30 very active in a given week. Parents can find information about math summer camps and get help explaining concepts, and students can send letters to Dr. Math. The responses from Dr. Math experts have been collected and published as books.

Problem of the Week, a particularly popular feature on the site, is a subscription-based service. Students around the world submit answers online to the Problem of the Week, annotating their answers with step-by-step explanations. Expert mentors then reply to the submissions, guiding students if necessary to find the right answer. By guiding students to think further about a problem rather than supplying the correct answer, Problem of the Week helps student develop problem-solving skills and promotes inquiry-based learning.

Math Forum also has been used to support pre-service teacher education. In 2004, for example, pre-service teachers in two education programs in Oregon used Math Forum’s Problem of the Week to practice responding productively to assignments submitted by middle school students. As pre-service teachers practiced giving constructive feedback to students, mentors provided guidance and support to improve the feedback. Through this hands-on experience, the pre-service teachers learned what kinds of feedback most effectively guided students to the correct answers.

Growth of such online learning communities that foster deep expertise has been limited because they exist outside the formal structure of funding and certifying educator learning. So even though participating in Math Forum may be better for educators than most of the other professional learning experiences they are offered, time spent using online resources like Math Forum does not relieve them of their obligations to attend other programs to meet district and state requirements.

Moreover, online communities like Math Forum must compete for resources with institutions such as schools of education that have much more stable sources of funding because it is outside the formal institutional structure of educator preparation. The principle that learning outcomes are more important than where and when the learning takes place should be applied to educator learning just as it should to student learning.

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