COE faculty partner with U.S., Thai universities to assess math teaching methods

By Mary Murphy

The University of North Texas has partnered with several universities across the U.S. and in Thailand to conduct a long-term collaborative research project about the effectiveness of teaching mathematics in middle grades.

The research team plans to determine the effectiveness of teaching mathematics using three methods: Lesson Study with Open Approach, short-cycle formative assessment, and mathematical knowledge for teaching. Faculty members from UNT, Baylor, Bowling Green State University, Khon Kaen University (Thailand), Chiang Mai University (Thailand), Suratthani Rjabhat University (Thailand), Thaskin University (Thailand) and Srinakharin-wirot University (Thailand) are trying to determine if teacher and student understanding of algebraic reasoning grows when concepts are taught through professional development involving Lesson Study with Open Approach. UNT will act as the home-site of the U.S.-conducted research, and Khon Kaen will be the home-site of Thailand-conducted research.

Jim Laney, chair of the Department of Teacher Education and Administration, and Colleen Eddy, associate professor, stand with COE Dean Jerry Thomas as he signs the official documentation for the UNT-Thai partnerships.

The idea for this collaboration began in 2012 at the U.S.-Thailand Roundtable on Science Education in mathematics education, where members of the Thailand Research Fund revealed that they wanted to be involved in more international research. Shortly thereafter, the director of the Institute for Promotion of Science and Mathematics Teaching (IPST), UNT alumna Pornphan Waitayankoon, initiated a research project with the Thailand Research Fund.

Waitayankoon received her PhD from UNT, and she reached out to the university's vice provost of International Affairs, Richard Nader, to see if the university was interested in this collaborative research opportunity. Nader spoke with Colleen Eddy, an associate professor in the UNT College of Education's Department of Teacher Education and Administration who focuses on teacher preparation and teacher quality in mathematics education, and Eddy gathered a group of math educators (including herself) who were interested in working on the project.

Although Khon Kaen University has previously worked on research projects with IPST, it was Eddy's colleague Tom Corcoran, co-director of the Teacher's College at Columbia University,whointroduced her to Maitree Inprasitha, the dean of the College of Education at Khon Kaen. According to Eddy, Cocoran was a great support in establishing and providing credibility to the partnership between UNT and Khon Kaen University.

Eddy and Sara Pratt, UNT assistant professor in Teacher Education and Administration, visited KKU later in the year to learn how the Lesson Study with Open Approach method was conducted, and in 2013 KKU hosted a workshop for research project team members from KKU, Chiang Mai University, Suratthani Rajabhat University, UNT, IPST, Baylor and BGSU. In the spring of 2014, UNT hosted the research team to continue refining the project.

"During the 2013 KKU visit, everyone gave a short synopsis of the research that they were currently working on, and we determined the overlapping research that would contribute to not just our own national communities but the international community," Eddy said. "We decided to focus on middle-grades mathematics, specifically the teaching of algebraic reasoning, and use the [Lesson Study with Open Approach] method that Thailand has been using as part of the vehicle by which we help teachers develop their teaching of algebraic reasoning in the middle grades."

At KKU, Dean Inprasitha uses a combination of Lesson Study and Open Approach. Lesson Study, developed in Japan, includes a collaboration of teachers determining how to best teach content to students; teachers, faculty and curriculum coordinators listening to the children's responses to a lesson; and a debriefing of the lesson plan that may include tweaks and changes. The addition of the Open Approach focuses the lesson even more on students' ways of thinking.  The Open Approach calls for teachers to anticipate possible student responses, and then to sequence the students' actual responses in a way that exemplifies the progression of understanding in the classroom.

"We conjecture that by having teachers be involved like this, it will help learning be inclusive of all students in the classroom rather than the students who seem to grasp information quickly or speak up in class," Eddy said.

According to Eddy, researchers also speculate that use of the Lesson Study with Open Approach method increases a teacher's ability to incorporate the short-cycle formative assessment. This allows teachers to gauge students' learning and understanding as it happens instead of after a test or national exam.

The short-cycle formative assessment, paired with Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, is how the collaborative research team will determine the effectiveness of Lesson Study with Open Approach.

Each faculty member from the different colleges plans to bring his or her own expertise into the project. Pratt and Bowling Green State Associate Professor Gabriel Matney bring their talent in Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching to the project; Trena Wilkerson, associate professor at Baylor and Eddy's mentor, is focusing on Lesson Study; and Eddy is concentrating on the short-cycle formative assessment portion of the project.

Although they are based around different expertise, all of the projects will be executed in a similar way. For instance, this summer, Eddy will conduct a two-week course in professional development for teaching algebraic reasoning. Then, during the academic year, teachers who studied with Eddy over the summer will use the Lesson Study component to teach algebraic reasoning in the classroom. Research partners will work with different school districts in their communities, but the general execution of the projects will be the same.

"While we can write up our results individually, we'll be able to combine our results as well, both looking at it from a U.S. lens as well as a Thailand lens, and then combining those," Eddy said. "There are a lot of ways that we will be able to collaborate with a lot of research for a long time. It's very exciting; we could definitely see 10 years down the road, at least."

There's also a potential opportunity for graduate students to be involved with this research project, and even the possibility of a master's and doctoral exchange program between Khon Kaen University and UNT graduate students – their students coming to study at UNT, and UNT students going to study abroad in Thailand.

"I don't know that [the students] would be completing a program, but at least maybe doing coursework there toward their degree programs," Eddy said. "Especially those who are really interested in how mathematics is taught in other countries, learning what we do and don't have in common."

In addition to potentially creating a study abroad experience for graduate students, the research project will most likely also increase UNT's notoriety, Eddy said.

"Some of the benefits of this partnership have really extended beyond just UNT and Khon Kaen University," Eddy said. "KKU's graduate students aren't just from Thailand. They're from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, other East Asian countries, and as they go to their universities they want to partner with us as well. I think [this partnership] really extends UNT's visibility, its appeal, and its reputation as well."