National Panel led by John Woodward Issues Guide for Math Teachers

May 23, 2012


U.S. Department of Education study sees need for a shift in math classes


TACOMA, Wash. – Educators moved a step closer to improving U.S. students’ skills in mathematics with the release of new guidelines from a national committee chaired by John Woodward, distinguished professor and dean of the School of Education at University of Puget Sound.

The five guidelines focus on how to teach mathematical problem solving to students in grades four through eight—an area of study that gets inadequate attention in classrooms according to Woodward. The recommendations are supported by research showing that these teaching methods do work in practice.

“With the push for higher education standards in recent years, the emphasis in the curriculum has largely been on improving content,” Woodward said. “But the world we live in today is all about problem solving and this aspect of learning has to have greater attention.”

The report, Improving Mathematical Problem Solving in Grades 4 Through 8, was developed by a panel of eight researchers and educators for the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), a project of the U.S. Department of Education that produces classroom guides based on scientific evidence. The report is being distributed to state education authorities, legislators, and national education leaders across the country. 

Woodward said the need to improve problem solving among schoolchildren is clear. Combining elements of reasoning, analysis, argument construction, and innovation, problem solving is used throughout a child’s school life, not only in mathematics, but in subjects such as science.

In Singapore problem solving is a prominent part of the mathematics curriculum, Woodward said. The Far East country is one of the highest-rated in international surveys of student math performance. In contrast, a 2009 study by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rated the mathematical performance of 15-year-old American students as 30th in the world, behind countries including South Korea, Canada, Australia, Slovenia, Poland, and Hungary.

The “reader-friendly” recommendations of the panel, in brief, are:

  • Prepare problems and use them in whole-class instruction
  • Assist students in monitoring and reflecting on the problem-solving process
  • Teach students how to use visual representations
  • Expose students to multiple problem-solving strategies
  • Help students recognize and articulate mathematical concepts and notation

The recommendations were created after the committee scoured more than 3,700 research studies on teaching practices and selected those with the most scientific rigor.

The WWC is administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences through a contract with Mathematica Policy Research, which conducts studies for foundations, governments, and international organizations.

The Institute of Education Sciences panel members include John Woodward, University of Puget Sound; Sybilla Beckmann, University of Georgia; Mark Driscoll, Education Development Center; Megan Franke, University of California, Los Angeles; Patricia Herzig, national math consultant; Asha Jitendra, University of Minnesota; Kenneth Koedinger, Carnegie Mellon University; and Philip Ogbuehi, Los Angeles Unified School District.

John Woodward is a member of the national Institute of Education Sciences panel and consults for the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. A distinguished professor and dean of the School of Education at University of Puget Sound, he is currently working on numerous projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. These examine mathematics education, technology-based instruction, and professional development. Woodward wrote the middle school textbook Transitional Mathematics, which is used in more than 40 states. He has written more than 60 articles for professional journals and edited books published in the United States, Spain, and Russia.

For a copy of Improving Mathematical Problem Solving in Grades 4 Through 8 visit: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide.aspx?sid=16

Photos on page: Top right: A college student in Puget Sound's School of Education works with a pupil in a local school; Above left: John Woodward. Photos by Ross Mulhausen.

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