Inside IES Research

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Observations Matter: Listening to and Learning from English Learners in Secondary Mathematics Classrooms

April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month and Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. We asked Drs. Haiwen Chu and Leslie Hamburger, secondary mathematics researchers at the IES-funded National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners (EL R&D Center), to share how classroom observations are critical to analyzing and improving learning opportunities for English learners.

Could you tell us about your IES-funded project?

Haiwen: As part of the EL R&D Center portfolio of work, we developed RAMPUP, or Reimagining and Amplifying Mathematics Participation, Understanding, and Practices. RAMPUP is a summer bridge course for rising ninth graders. The three-week course is designed to challenge and support English learners to learn ambitious mathematics and generative language simultaneously. We will conduct a pilot study during summer 2024, with preliminary findings in fall 2024.

 

What motivated you to do this work?

Haiwen: English learners are frequently denied opportunities to engage in conceptually rich mathematics learning. We want to transform these patterns of low challenge and low support by offering a summer enrichment course that focuses on cross-cutting concepts uniting algebra, geometry, and statistics. We also designed active and engaged participation to be central to the development of ideas and practices in mathematics. English learners learn by talking and interacting with one another in ways that are both sustained and reciprocal.

Leslie: In addition, we wanted to offer broader approaches to developing language with English learners. As we have refined the summer program, we have explicitly built in meaningful opportunities for English learners to grow in their ability to describe, argue, and explain critical mathematics concepts in English This language development happens simultaneously with the development of conceptual understanding.

What have you observed among English learners so far in RAMPUP study classrooms?

Leslie: Over the past two summers, I have observed RAMPUP in two districts for two weeks total. The classrooms reflect America’s wide diversity, including refugee newcomers and students who were entirely educated in the United States. I was able to see both teachers facilitating and students learning. I observed how students developed diverse approaches to solving problems.

Through talk, students built upon each other’s ideas, offered details, and expanded descriptions of data distributions. Over time, their descriptions of data became more precise, as they attended to similarities and differences and developed labels. I also observed how teachers assisted students by giving hints without telling them what to do.

Haiwen: As we observed, we wanted to understand how English learners engaged in the activities we had designed, as well as how their conceptual understandings and language developed simultaneously. I have spent two summers immersed in three districts over seven weeks with diverse students as they developed relationships, deep understandings, and language practices.

I was honestly surprised by the complex relationships between how students wrote and the development of their ideas and language. Sometimes, students wrote to collect their thoughts, which they then shared orally with others, to collectively compose a common way to describe a pattern. Other times, writing was a way to reflect and give each other feedback on what was working well and how peers could improve their work. Writing was also multi-representational as students incorporated diagrams, tables, and other representations as they wrote.

From closely observing students as they wrote, I also gained valuable insight into how they think. For example, they often looked back at their past work and then went on to write, stretching their understanding.

Why are your observations important to your project?

Haiwen: RAMPUP is an iterative design and development project: our observations were driven by descriptive questions (how students learned) and improvement questions (how to refine activities and materials). By observing each summer what worked well for students, and what fell flat, we have been able to iteratively improve the flow and sequencing of activities.

We have learned that observations matter most when they directly inform broader, ongoing efforts at quality learning.

Now, in our final phase, we are working to incorporate educative examples of what quality interactions looked and sounded like to enhance the teacher materials. Beyond the shorter episodes confined within a class period, we are also describing patterns of growth over time, including vignettes and portfolios of sample student work.

Leslie: Indeed, I think that wisdom comes both in practice and learning by looking back on practice. Our observations will enable teachers to better anticipate what approaches their students might take. Our educative materials will offer teachers a variety of real-life approaches that actual students similar to their own may take. This deep pedagogical knowledge includes knowing when, if, and how to intervene to give the just-right hints.

We will also soon finalize choices for how teachers can introduce activities, give instructions, and model processes. Having observed marvelous teaching moves—such as when a teacher created a literal “fishbowl” to model an activity (gathering students around a focal group to observe their talk and annotations), I am convinced we will be able to provide teachers with purposeful, flexible, and powerful choices to implement RAMPUP with quality and excellence.


To access research-based tools developed by the National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners to help teachers design deeper and more meaningful mathematics learning for all students, particularly those still learning English, see How to Engage English Learners in Mathematics: Q&A with Dr. Haiwen Chu.

To receive regular updates and findings from the Center, as well as webinar and conference opportunities, subscribe to Where the Evidence Leads newsletter.

This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), program officer for the Policies, Practices, and Programs to Support English Learners portfolio at NCER.

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