Middle school mathematics classrooms are marked by increasing cognitive diversity and students' persistent difficulties in learning algebra. Currently middle school mathematics instruction in a single classroom is often not differentiated for different thinkers, which can bore some students or overly challenge others. One way schools often deal with different thinkers at the same grade level is by tracking, which has also been shown to have deleterious effects on students, both cognitively and affectively. In addition, students continue to struggle to learn algebra, and increasing numbers of middle school students are receiving algebra instruction. The proposed project initiates new research and an integrated education plan to address these problems by investigating (1) how to effectively differentiate instruction for middle school students at different reasoning levels; and (2) how to foster middle school students' algebraic reasoning and rational number knowledge in mutually supportive ways. Educational goals of the project are to enhance the abilities of prospective and practicing teachers to teach cognitively diverse students, to improve doctoral students' understanding of relationships between students' learning and teachers' practice, and to form a community of mathematics teachers committed to on-going professional learning about how to differentiate instruction.
Three research-based products are being developed: two learning trajectories, materials for differentiating instruction developed collaboratively with teachers, and a written assessment to evaluate students' levels of reasoning. The first trajectory, elaborated for students at each of three levels of reasoning, focuses on developing algebraic expressions and solving basic equations that involve rational numbers; the second learning trajectory, also elaborated for students at each of three levels of reasoning, focuses on co-variational reasoning in linear contexts. In addition, the project investigates how students' classroom experience is influenced by differentiated instruction, which will allow for comparisons with research findings on student experiences in tracked classrooms. Above all, the project enhances middle school mathematics teachers' abilities to serve cognitively diverse students. This aspect of the project has the potential to decrease opportunity gaps. Finally, the project generates an understanding of the kinds of support needed to help prospective and practicing teachers learn to differentiate instruction.
The project advances discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning by (a) integrating research into the teaching of middle school mathematics, (b) fostering the learning of all students by tailoring instruction to their cognitive needs, (c) partnering with practicing teachers to learn how to implement this kind of instruction, (d) improving the training of prospective mathematics teachers and graduate students in mathematics education, and (e) generating a community of mathematics teachers who engage in on-going learning to differentiate instruction. The project broadens participation by including students from underrepresented groups, particularly those with learning disabilities. Results from the project will be broadly disseminated via conference presentations; articles in diverse media outlets; and a project website that will make project products available, be a location for information about the project for the press and the public, and be a tool to foster teacher-to-teacher communication.
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