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Jill Baxter honored by UO for advancing math education

For many of us, the clearest memories of our grade-school math instruction were their mind-numbing, time-consuming repetitiveness. Odds 1-59 of long division, evens 2-40 of adding fractions. Show your work. Not understanding what you were doing was, perhaps by design, its own punishment; it took forever and if you didn't get the first couple problems you probably weren't going to get the rest. You could also have a command of the process without really​ knowing the math, which arguably was worse. But truly understanding it, ironically, was almost a greater punishment because there was no way to demonstrate your mastery of the principles and move on. Considering how long math has been taught this way, it's no small wonder that only the most resilient and determined students learn to love math for the infinite and exciting potential it holds.

Jill Baxter, newly anointed head of the Education Studies department at the College of Education, wants to change the way we teach math, especially at the elementary level. Her 20-plus years of research and instruction on this topic earned her one of the coveted 2013 Fund for Faculty Excellence Awards, formally announced July 1 by Provost Jim Bean.

Baxter's areas of interest are educational psychology, assessment, and examining how secondary and elementary teachers can make each other better - all with mathematics as the context. For example, the pre-service teachers who take her class are asked to evaluate how they were taught math and what they can do differently in their classrooms to better engage students in math and science; she says this almost "feels like therapy."

Technology has opened new doors in terms of how math is taught, though the market is so cluttered with material, modules and tutorials that it can be challenging to separate the good from the bad. This is a focal area of the master's-level course Baxter teaches.

"There's a whole lot of bad stuff out there that we don't want to be using with kids, that just re-create the experience of the one-room schoolhouse, memorizing with your chalkboard, only now you've got an iPad instead of a slate," she says. "What I'd like to see us do is get much, much smarter at helping teachers sift through and strategically use these materials."

Though she says she's ambivalent about high-tech versus low-tech instructional methods, the shelves of her office in Lokey Education betray a certain affinity for the latter. If every Tupperware container of colorful blocks or tangram-style puzzles were filled with, say, potato salad, she could feed the football team five times over. These tactile tools, she says, are part of an emerging instructional model one of her colleagues calls "activity before content." But technology is vital to the future of teaching, and Baxter loves its potential. She's part of the Learning Management System Task Force, beta testing both ObaVerse (Global and Online Education's online marketplace for instructional materials) with three different courses, and Ripple, a polling application that can be used with mobile devices with Internet access. 

"Instead of starting out with, 'Here's a definition,' let's engage in an activity or exploration of some kind and then we're going to debrief and talk about it," she says. "Then we have this common frame for discussing the math or science we're working on ... those kinds of situations where we have a common, shared frame can catapult us into pretty interesting conversations in mathematics and science."

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