$2.9 Million Grant Will Help Elementary Teachers Boost Students’ Math Understanding

Susan Empson

Susan Empson, Department of Curriculum and Instruction

A University of Texas at Austin education professor has received a $2.9 million grant to help elementary school math teachers use the latest research on how children think about math to improve student learning outcomes. 

The National Science Foundation grant will help teachers develop expertise in responsive teaching, which, in contrast to more traditional teaching methods, is an open, adaptive approach. With responsive teaching, educators make instructional decisions based on their students’ understanding of a specific topic as well as research on the development of children’s thinking about the topic.

“Although teachers make decisions all the time as part of instruction, this particular type of strategic, on-the-spot decision making is not common,” said Susan Empson, principal investigator and professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Research indicates a key benefit of responsive teaching is that it helps students develop the ability to approach problems flexibly and from a number of different angles. It also builds their conceptual understanding and confidence.

One key aspect of responsive teaching is determining what kinds of understanding each child brings to the learning experience. The teacher focuses on the types of problems that the child can solve at the outset rather than focusing on the problems that a child cannot yet solve.

“Currently, there’s a significant gap between research on children’s mathematical thinking and research on how to support teachers to learn to use that research in their classrooms during instruction,” said Empson. “As a field, we know much more about children’s thinking than we do about teachers’ development of this pedagogical expertise, and our project’s going to address this deficit.”

She and her colleagues will be working with 100 third- to fifth-grade teachers for three years, offering professional development, studying how their responsiveness to children’s thinking changes over time, and then analyzing student learning gains during the third year.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, SRI International and Teachers Development Group are partners on the project.

Last updated on October 22, 2013