Free Resource Helps Teachers Prepare Children for the Future of STEM

By Rachel Chapdelaine

Curry School researchers built a video library that aims to improve early learners’ mathematics skills by providing free professional development for preschool teachers.

Thanks to a team of UVA researchers, preschool teachers now have a free online resource to support children’s early mathematics learning.

The mathematics video library, developed by researchers at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) within the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, features clips of effective mathematics instruction used in real preschool classrooms. The videos cover a broad range of mathematical areas, including numeracy, operations, geometry, patterning and measurement — areas that research shows support learning across subjects and are particularly important for mathematics development.

“This resource has the potential to support teachers in their mathematics instruction by providing them with opportunities to view videos of evidence-based strategies that support children’s mathematics skills. Each video is accompanied by a short text description that highlights key interactions, both in terms of mathematics skills and teaching strategies,” said Jessica Whittaker, a research associate professor at CASTL.

Supporting Early STEM Skills

The video library is part of a larger intervention, Supporting Teachers to Enhance their Practice (STEP), that also includes online professional development modules for teachers and individualized coaching to support their mathematics instruction. According to Whittaker, the intervention has the potential to answer a call made by education researchers for advanced professional development focused on STEM teaching strategies, an effort that would place children in a stronger position for later learning.

Over the next decade, the demand for professionals in STEM fields like mathematics will grow rapidly. However, many children in the U.S. are still entering kindergarten without a strong foundation in mathematics and behind their peers in other countries on mathematics achievement tests.

“Given only 8 percent of the preschool classroom day is dedicated to mathematics, young children are at risk of having gaps in key mathematics skills as they enter kindergarten, with children from low-income backgrounds at even greater risk,” said Whittaker.

With this knowledge comes hope for children’s early STEM education, as meaningful changes to teaching practice can translate to improved outcomes for children.

“By enhancing teachers’ knowledge and teaching strategies to effectively engage young children in mathematics, we can equip America’s future workforce with the skills they need to succeed,” said Whittaker.

In 2017, Whittaker partnered with Carol Clark, the executive director of Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area, on a study of the STEP intervention. Through the pilot, they strengthened the quality of early childhood mathematics instruction in several early childhood classrooms across Virginia.

When observing in the classroom of a participating STEP teacher, Clark witnessed improvements in mathematics instruction.

“The teacher employed new strategies that changed her perspective about teaching mathematics, like integrating vocabulary specific to the subject and providing opportunities for mathematical experiences throughout the day,” said Clark. “She found the feedback from her coaching sessions to be extremely helpful in guiding her practices and the professional development experience, overall, to be very rewarding.”

A Powerful Professional Development Tool

Following the STEP pilot, Whitaker and her team had a better understanding of how to support teachers’ mathematics knowledge and teaching practice, but they also recognized the need for better professional development and pre-service training, leading to the development of a searchable mathematics video library.

According to Whittaker, very little training is required of pre-service early childhood teachers in the areas of mathematics — considerably less than in literacy. “Many preschool teachers have never received formal instruction or guidance on teaching mathematics to young children, and, for some, it is a content area that feels new and intimidating,” she said. “Our goal was to make training more accessible by creating a free, scalable and web-based resource that provides evidence-based strategies teachers can use to foster the development of early mathematics skills.”

The challenge of providing professional development today is primarily time. “Most private programs are experiencing a critical staffing shortage. Getting teachers out to professional development training is extremely challenging,” said Clark. “The STEP program and video library allow teachers to participate during the day.”

As an online tool, the video library can be easily accessed by any educator with little to no cost to early childhood education programs, helping to fill the gap in the availability of high-quality mathematics and executive function professional development.

Valuable Real-World Examples

The library currently houses around 60 video examples that feature specific targeted and foundational teaching strategies that support children’s early mathematics and executive function skills. Each one- to two-minute scenario has a short description that highlights key interactions between teachers and students. By pointing to specific interactions, the description guides teachers through the video and supports them to be more intentional in their teaching.

For example, this video, in which students determine which area of the classroom received the most votes, is a great representation of how teachers can make lessons relevant to their students. The description clearly outlines the strategies the teacher employs to support children’s comparing and ordering skills as well as the important interactions within the video.

“Viewing examples in an actual preschool setting provides teachers with a better understanding of how children process and learn using their mathematics skills,” said Clark. “Teachers are highly engaged in their professional development by observing these clips, discussing it with mentors and peers and trying the new strategies that are depicted.”

STEP chose a video format for the library based on social learning theory and dynamic memory theory, which suggest that people learn by observing and developing scripts for how to behave in different situations. “By watching examples of teaching, the teachers learn how to develop their own observation skills so they can make improvements to their practice,” said Whittaker.

The STEP program has already provided a promise of high-quality professional development for effective mathematics instruction. To further this effort, Whittaker and her team have applied for additional funding to run a larger study on the STEP intervention.

“The pilot raised questions about how the intervention leads to changes in teachers’ practice and whether these changes would result in improved child outcomes,” said Whittaker. “That’s what we hope to uncover next.”