From surviving to thriving: LSI brings support and success to mathematics educators navigating virtual learning

BY: BILL WELLOCK

Last year, students and teachers in Florida and across the nation were asked to do a lot when remote learning forced them out of the physical classroom.

That didn’t stop educators from pushing forward to learn new ways to best teach traditional subjects like math to their students, whether they were in person or on Zoom. And FSU’s Learning Systems Institute (LSI) was there to help.

Researchers were already in the middle of a U.S. Department of Education-funded project to help instruct teachers in how to use the principles of Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) — a method of instructional practice that prioritizes children’s natural developmental progressions in how they learn mathematics — and to research the effectiveness of those instruction methods. Researchers at LSI worked with the CGI Math Teacher Learning Center to convert what was intended to be four days of face-to-face professional development into lessons over Zoom and Google Classroom during summer 2020.

“We needed to invent new ways to do many things that we had never done before,” said principal investigator Robert Schoen. “That work paid off for more than 800 teachers who learned to use CGI and for researchers who gained valuable insight into how those teaching methods can help students in the future.”

The conversion to a remote platform prompted the creation of methods to enable teachers to view each student’s screen as they complete a task in a virtual setting to see the methods they are using, the same way a teacher might circulate in an in-person classroom.

A sixth-grade student turns up the volume as she attends class through the digital academy at the The School of Arts and Sciences on Thomasville Road. (Courtesy of Robert Schoen)

For example, a first-grade teacher who asks a class to add “5 + 8” might encounter a variety of methods for solving that problem. Some students might count each number out on their fingers or draw circles and count them all. Others might start with a mental “8” in their heads and add 5 to it by counting forward, one finger at a time. Other students might think about the 8 as 5 + 3 and add the fives first and then the three. A teacher using CGI pays attention to each of those methods, encourages students with different strategies to help each other and guides students toward mathematical fluency.

“CGI is based on decades of research on how children’s ideas about mathematics grow and mature over time,” Schoen said. “The CGI program helps teachers to remember what it is like to think about the mathematics from the students’ perspective. Teachers learn mathematics during workshops through the in-depth analysis of their students’ thinking processes, and they continually monitor their students’ thinking processes to make adjustments to their instruction to meet their students’ needs.”

Elizabeth Fravel, who teaches elementary school students at the School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee, can already see how the training has helped her as an educator.

“I now have a much better understanding of the natural developmental process that children go through as they develop an understanding of numbers and mathematical thinking,” Fravel said. “What CGI does is break down those very predictable stages in mathematics learning. It helps teachers to be able to identify what’s going on. If someone in third grade has to act out division problems with cubes every time, you can identify where they are in the spectrum of understanding and move them forward in a way that makes sense to them.”

LSI faculty and researchers are continuing to help teachers develop their skills with CGI lessons that can be applied in a face-to-face setting or in a virtual classroom. They will provide more virtual professional development this summer and plan to transition back to in-person workshops during the 2021-2022 school year.

The Foundations for Success project has already shown successful preliminary results that suggest positive impacts on teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about math teaching, and many of these teachers are going on to great success in their classrooms and careers. Two of the three state finalists for the most recent Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching were involved in the CGI program.

This project was funded by a major grant from the SEED program at the U.S. Department of Education. The SEED program provides competitively awarded grants to support implementation of evidence-based practices in education. The project seeks to achieve several goals that include the development of effective mathematics teachers in Florida and meeting student needs across historically underserved and underrepresented populations in mathematics.

For more information about the Foundations for Success project or educational resources, visit the Teaching is Problem Solving website.