ATA Educational Research Award

October 19, 2010

Math literacy among First Nations students focus of research

What can be done to improve the performance of Aboriginal students in ­mathematics?

This is the question that Drs Florence Glanfield, Dwayne Donald and Gladys Sterenberg, a research team from the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, have been trying to answer in a research project that has garnered them the ATA’s 2009/10 Educational Research Award of $5,000.

The project began in September 2007 when teachers at a First Nation school in northeastern Alberta asked the researchers for help in improving the numeracy skills of their students. Convinced that no strategy could succeed without taking into account Aboriginal wisdom traditions, the researchers encouraged the entire school community to participate in planning and undertaking the research.

The numeracy skills of students in five classes in the school were assessed using a combination of performance-based tasks, paper-and-pencil tests and teacher–student interviews. The teachers and students also watched the interviews (which had been taped) together, and the teachers attempted to elicit from the students what they were thinking as they tried to solve the math problems that had been presented to them. The researchers discovered that some children who were unable to complete the worksheets were nevertheless able to verbalize their thought processes during the interviews by using manipulatives. Conversely, some of the children who had completed their worksheets successfully were unable to explain their thinking during the interviews.

The researchers realized that the relatively poor performance of Aboriginal students likely had to do with the fact that Aboriginal children tend to have had little exposure outside their classrooms to the language used in discussing mathematical concepts. As a result, they may not understand the language used in mathematics textbooks, assessment instruments and other commercially produced resources. With the help of the researchers, the teachers are now exploring ways of modifying their instructional and assessment practices to ensure a greater correspondence between what students experience in the classroom and how they view the world of everyday reality.

The ATA presents the Educational Research Award annually to faculty members or sessional lecturers at an Alberta university whose research is deemed to be of exceptional practical benefit to classroom teachers.