Research and development (R&D) is an engine of innovation in many sectors but has been largely untapped in education. It is a powerful way to seed meaningful and lasting change for students and schools. Other sectors achieve incredible advances through R&D. In fact, we are beginning to see the other side of the pandemic because sustained R&D made it possible to develop a vaccine in record time.
What if we introduced a new way of doing research and development in education, taking the best of what we know about learning and teaching and combined it with the best of what we know about generating innovative solutions?
We are doing just that by turning traditional R&D on its head: assembling teams that include classroom teachers as front-end decision makers, grounding those efforts in the science of learning, and piloting projects that center equity to create practices and tools that are useful and usable by teachers and students. Increasingly, this approach is known as inclusive research and development. We have embraced and extended this model to focus on a key priority for every student, every teacher, every school and every community: improving math learning.
We are part of a community of educators, researchers, and developers working to significantly increase the number of students in grades 3-8 in historically under-resourced schools who excel in math. As part of a program called EF+Math, we are designing and developing practices and tools that strengthen core assets every student has—their executive function (EF) skills. These skills allow students to focus on what’s important and ignore distractions, think flexibly to solve problems, and keep track of ideas in their heads. EF skills are critical for learning math and may be an untapped lever to accelerate math learning.
The EF+Math Program is a five-year inclusive R&D initiative that invests in diverse multidisciplinary teams to create breakthrough approaches that will tackle longstanding math learning challenges. A key aim of our work is to reduce the time it takes to translate research into breakthrough practices, programs, and products that boost students’ math learning. We are pursuing this goal by funding and supporting inclusive R&D project teams that affirm the brilliance of Black and Latinx students and students in poverty, and co-designing rigorous math learning approaches in real-world classrooms.
Changing the Game for Math Learning
One project funded by EF+Math is called Fraction Ball. An inclusive R&D team anchored at UC Irvine’s School of Education (UCI) is exploring a way to help students learn rational numbers on the school playground. Built on a principle from learning science that embodied cognition results in stronger, longer lasting learning, the project is testing a hypothesis that play-based, active learning tied directly to learning numeracy and fractions will result in breakthrough gains in math learning and EF skill-building.