For Rebecca Ambrose, the key to teaching math to children lies in
an understanding of how they solve problems before anyone has
“Kids use informal strategies and can figure things out in very
interesting and sophisticated ways. What we observe about how
they approach mathematical problem solving can inform the basis
for teachers’ instruction,” said Ambrose.
Ambrose, who credits her approach to a method called Cognitively
Guided Instruction (CGI), founded by Thomas Carpenter and
Elizabeth Fenneman in the 1980s at the University of Wisconsin,
is engaged in two research projects that have the potential to
recast the way teachers approach mathematics instruction in
elementary school and beyond.
At Glenwood Elementary in North Sacramento, Ambrose and graduate
student Garrett Kenehan investigated children’s understanding of
three-dimensional geometry. Meeting with third grade students
once a week for several months, the researchers were interested
in how children think about geometry.
“Geometry has long been treated like the step-child of math,”
said Ambrose. “It isn’t taught much until high school and then
students have a lot of trouble with it. If we don’t give kids the
opportunity to develop spatial thinking, only those few who have
real gifts in this area will pursue and excel in careers that
require this understanding.”
This research looked at whether an activity like building
three-dimensional geometric objects is effective in engaging
students in general math inquiry. An in-depth research article is
due out next year.
In February 2004, Ambrose embarked on a three-year project at
Markham Elementary in Vacaville, California, funded by the
California Postsecondary Education Commission. This work is
exploring how children’s thinking and the way they approach
mathematical problem solving can inform professional development
Collaborating on the project with UC Davis mathematics professor
Evelyn Sylvia, Ambrose meets with twelve K-6 teachers monthly.
They discuss videotaped sessions of their students and discuss
individual interviews that are conducted with the children to
better understand how children approach math problems.
Ambrose says she is excited about this project because it
“employs all the principles of success: it’s school-based,
focused on what teachers are doing in the classroom, and we are
discussing both the math and the teaching of the math. Our hope
is that we will come out of this with some design principles for
professional development in math.”
After teaching middle school math for ten years, I decided to
pursue a PhD to get a fresh perspective on the issues I
observed every day in my classroom and thought that maybe I
could help develop remedies that would help other teachers, as