How do we learn: African American elementary students learning reform mathematics in urban classrooms

Lanette Roberta Waddell, University of Pennsylvania


The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards offer a vision of mathematics teaching that aligns with the research on African American cultural dimensions, culturally relevant pedagogy, and current research on teaching and learning. Considering the promise of these bodies of research, this qualitative study investigates how elementary African American students in an urban school respond to standards oriented mathematics classroom practices by studying their patterns of interaction over a period of 3-4 years. The students in the study had access to standards oriented teaching practices enacted by the teachers that: (1) encouraged participation in whole group lessons and discussions, (2) facilitated collaboration in small group work, (3) supported the communication of mathematical thinking, and (4) modeled the use of physical tools to support math interactions. These practices connected with the African American cultural dimensions of engaging in social/affective interactions while learning and the students responded to these practices in expected ways. However, the teachers missed opportunities to enact other standards-oriented practices; most of these missed opportunities came from the realm of connecting with student prior and cultural knowledge. From the students there were unanticipated responses to teaching practices that emerged: they would respond to mathematical situations with dramatic and expressive responses, they would improvise the rules and directions to games and activities, or they would privilege their own personal knowledge when looking for solutions to problems. Additionally, difficulties in students' mathematical understandings emerged: students used mental modeling less often and relied more on their personal knowledge rather than math knowledge to make sense of the problems they were attempting to solve. These divergent practices draw our attention to the ways that student frameworks for understanding can collide with the expectations teachers and schools hold about student behaviors and understandings. Suggestions for further work include considering divergent student responses as an opportunity for reflection on teaching in addition to an area of remediation of student learning. Additionally, working to better incorporate the philosophies supporting culturally relevant pedagogy and African American cultural dimensions into mathematics teaching could encourage more reflective teaching practices.

Subject Area

Mathematics education|African Americans|Elementary education|Curricula|Teaching

Recommended Citation

Waddell, Lanette Roberta, "How do we learn: African American elementary students learning reform mathematics in urban classrooms" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3261003.