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Why Isn’t Marcus Learning Math?


Using Complex Instruction to support exciting intellectual work and equitable outcomes in elementary and middle school mathematics classrooms.

Learning is a social enterprise.  Ideas and understanding grow when people - children or adults - work together on challenging and engaging problems, putting out embryonic ideas, explaining, asking questions.  Research indicates that children in classrooms where students do a lot of talking about rich mathematics learn more than those in classrooms where this does not happen.

Having students work in groups on mathematically rich problems that challenge all participants creates a context in which many children could, potentially, get a chance to present their ideas and investigate the ideas of others.  Unfortunately, the promise of groupwork is often subverted by group dynamics:  even second graders have ideas about which of their classmates are  "smart" and which are not and in most classrooms the ones seen as smart do most of the talking during groupwork while those seen as less smart remain nearly silent, their ideas unsolicited -  or even ignored.  Opportunities to learn are granted to some, but not to others.

All attentive observers, whether teachers or educational researchers, notice that when   children work in groups some participate far more eagerly than others.  We often attribute the differences we observe to differences in style, personality, or academic potential, or interest in the task.  The late Elizabeth Cohen of Stanford University was a sociologist, and brought a sociological lens to her observations. Perhaps in consequence, she conjectured that differences in status explained the differences in participation that she observed: children whose status was high - for whatever reason - expected, and were expected by others, to have the right answers in any math task; children with low status got the floor far less often and even if they insisted on talking, others rarely engaged seriously with their ideas. Research in classrooms supported Cohen's conjecture.

Cohen and colleagues at Stanford, along with some elementary and secondary school teachers created a set of strategies to help teachers  to respond to the problems that status creates and to free all children to engage with mathematically rich problems. They called the approach that grew out of this work "Complex Instruction."   In this workshop, Helen Featherstone will introduce and clarify  the ideas underlying "Complex Instruction"  and  show some of the ways that teachers have used these ideas in their classrooms. 

Helen Featherstone
Associate Professor Emerita of Teacher Education

Michigan State University
Adjunct Professor of Education
Brandeis University


Helen Featherstone is a teacher educator with particularly keen interest in mathematics education, teacher inquiry, and the creation of classrooms that honor the intellectual liveliness of all students. A student of learning both inside and outside of schools and universities, she wrote A Difference in the Family (Basic Books, 1980) about the experiences of families coping with a child's disability and was the founding editor of both the Harvard Education Letter and Changing Minds, a bulletin of school reform.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009, 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Zinner Forum, Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

Contact:  Manuel Tuan, MAT Program Coordinator, at 781-736-2022 or mat@brandeis.edu  
R.S.V.P. strongly preferred.