Summing it up: Adding context to education

“When a classroom looks exactly like a classroom I had as an elementary student or that my mother had, that’s an issue,” Dr. Stefanie Livers said.

Livers, an assistant professor of elementary and mathematics education, studies how math classrooms fall into cycles of ineffective teaching.

“Math classrooms still look like silent rows of students with worksheets,” Livers said. “We know that’s not effective.”

Stefanie Livers works with Mark Twain Elementary Teacher

Dr. Stefanie Livers works with Amie Turner, a Mark Twain Elementary School teacher in Springfield. Turner wants to ensure she is reaching her students.

Livers studies the barriers preventing math classrooms from advancing. For instance, in a recent National Council of Teachers publication, Livers and collaborators addressed the dangers of using animal tricks – like calling the inequality symbols alligator mouths – within mathematics instruction. These tricks distract. Instead, she says the focus should be on tasks with meaningful contexts.

“Dr. Livers is connected with the best math educators in the country,” said Dr. Tammi Davis, assistant professor of elementary education at MSU. “Her research guides her teaching, and she is constantly working to improve teaching practices.”

“All people are math people. They just might solve a problem differently than someone who processes faster.”

Creating ethical, confident teachers

Livers’ research has three main areas of focus. These include preparation of future teachers, professional development and coaching of practicing teachers, and equitable-based teaching practices.

For Livers, equitable teaching practices includes providing meaningful context. This means that students can better comprehend the meaning behind the concepts and procedures.

Equitable teaching practices, she says, also includes removing biases whether or not they had previously been recognized. Improving instruction can start when educators analyze their own elementary school experiences, she notes.

“Historically, schools and education are developed in a biased system. We know that teachers tend to teach in the way they were taught.”

About her research

The final piece to Livers’ puzzle for improving teacher preparation is self-efficacy. In other words, she’s asking how teachers become confident in a classroom.

One of her recent studies on this topic examined five areas: instructional strategies, student engagement, teaching problem solving, student-centered practices and classroom management. Current elementary teachers, secondary math teachers and special education teachers were asked to self-report on each of those areas.

Livers and collaborators from the University of Alabama and University of South Carolina noticed over all categories of teachers there was a correlation between those who felt confident in instructional strategies and student engagement. Efficacy was also noted when teachers felt strong in both their instructional strategies and teaching problem solving.

But student-centered practices didn’t fit the puzzle as well, and was only statistically significant among the elementary teachers.

Stefanie Livers looks over the shoulder as two MSU students complete an assignment.

Dr. Stefanie Livers prepares education students to engage with their future students.

“Typically elementary teachers do plan and implement more student centered practices,” Livers said. “Student-centered math instruction allows for strong student contribution, encourages active student exploration, uses problems that require students to think critically and communicate their thinking, and asks students to explain the ‘why’ of their answers.”

Livers says that this published study can influence the future of professional development for practicing teachers.

“Because other research recognizes the interconnectedness between self-efficacy and teaching practices,” she said, “facilitators of professional development can learn from our findings to guide their collection of baseline data and to inform project designs.”

“The work I do pushes the societal misconception that there are math people and then there’s everyone else.”

You are a math person

“Mathematics is the gate keeper for all careers and futures,” Livers said. “Many schools use math as a decision maker of what track or trajectory you’re on.”

If math serves as a gatekeeper, what about students that don’t excel in the current math classroom model? Livers argues that every student can solve problems by using their individual strengths and funds of knowledge.

“How do we do it better for our students?” Livers said. “If that’s looking at teacher self-efficacy, so they can have more confidence, I’m happy to do it. That’s going to impact student achievement which impacts everything else.”

Further reading

Become a teacher


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