Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs
Students Speak Out Learn Math in the Process
Students with disabilities often have trouble getting involved in class discussions and developing their strategic thinking, especially in core subject areas. A recent OSEP-funded study conducted by the University of Oregon and the University of Puget Sound details a program that helped change the pattern of student-teacher discourse in math classes in order to address this problem.
In a typical math class, the teacher asks questions with pre-determined answers and students are drawn into guessing the right answer with brief responses (see box below for a comparison of teaching methods). Under such methods there is little room for student-initiated discussions of how they arrived at their answers and students who have difficulty following the teachers logic can quickly be left behind.
Teaching Mathematics: Traditional (IRE) Method vs. Reform (Discourse) Method
Teacher asks questions leading to predetermined answers
Students are led into guessing answers; students responses are usually brief
Teacher evaluates student performance based on responses
Students with high verbal skills tend to dominate discussions (low-achieving students usually remain passive in whole class discussions)
Teacher introduces problem, stimulates background knowledge
Students break into small groups
Students spontaneously debate concepts among themselves
Teacher moderates discussion, offers prompts to help develop conceptual understanding
The student-centered approach taken by this project focused on how the discourse in a fourth-grade math class would have the teacher move from providing answers at the beginning of the year (to establish context and stimulate background knowledge) to students debating concepts while the teacher listened and helped direct the discussions when necessary, in the course of nine weeks. In this class setting, everyone took part in class discussions, including students who were at-risk for or who had special education needs in math. The teachers role moved from would help by modeling thoughtful questioning and encouraging students to verbalize ideas.
In the second segment of the class, students were assigned to small groups to derive their own strategies for solving assigned problems. After this, the class would reconvene, and students over the course of the nine weeks, the students moved from merely reporting math calculations to articulating problem-solving strategies devised by their small groups.
In the small-group discussions, target students worked with the classs paraprofessional on understanding problems, finding strategies for solving them and interacting with peers who were working on their own. These students could then take a highly active role in the learning process. They were encouraged to offer their own suggestions and rehearse their understanding of their groups strategy and solution before going on to the next phase of learning, i.e., reporting their answers to the class. Here, too, students with special needs were included in the classroom discussion, answering questions and being called on when asking questions.
Although, overall, students with mathematics disabilities participated less than their less-challenged peers, the researchers found the method a vast improvement over pull-out programs. As they state, It is difficult to imagine how a pull-out, remedial setting would expose them to a discussion of different strategies and solutions that was student-centered. The math teacher involved in the study did note the difficulty of keeping a balance between eliciting the best strategies from the student discourse and calling on the widest range of students to report their strategies. In their report, the researchers touch upon this dilemma: Remedial environments that bring together only low-achieving students are likely to sponsor little in the way of rich, student-centered classroom discussion. Yet, typically sized, regular education classroom such as [this one] may not provide the most optimal solution to this problem. They suggest further interventions beyond those provided in their study.
However, the research calls attention to the fact that not all the important outcomes in a content area such as mathematics are entirely cognitive; the social-emotional involvement and communication skills encouraged by student centered classroom strategies are often overlooked but remain equally important, particularly when students with disabilities take an active role in the discussion, when they might otherwise be relegated to a passive role in the back of the classroom.
The research in the study was supported by the Office of Special Education Programs at the US Department of Education, Grant #H023V70008, Catherine Cobb Morocco, Project Director, and was reported in full in Baxter, Juliet, Woodward, John, Voorhies, Jill and Wong, Jennifer, We Talk About It, But Do They Get It? Learning Disabilities Research and Practice 17(3), 173-185.
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