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Sept. 10, 2020

Faculty voice: Changing math education for the better

Department of Teacher Education Professor Sandra Crespo discusses her teaching experience and how kids learn math in the classroom.

Sandra Crespo is a professor and associate chairperson in the Department of Teacher Education. She is the first Latina to earn full professorship in the department and is a recipient of the William J. Beal Outstanding MSU Faculty Award. Crespo is the co-adviser to Rueda Latin@, a College of Education organization providing mentorship opportunities to Latinx graduate students as they learn to navigate higher education.


The following faculty voice is edited and repurposed content from Lauren Knapp’s story “Sandra Crespo: The Trailblazer” and is available on the College of Education website.


From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I was drawn to teaching math because I saw how my friends were struggling when I wasn’t. I thought, “Something must be going on here. There cannot be that many people who are running away from the subject. So, the problem is not the students … the problem has to be an issue with the curriculum, or the teaching, or something. There has to be some issue in the way we’re teaching this that I can figure out.”

I’ve spent my career thinking about “problem-posing” in mathematics, or how math problems are written and constructed. In most cases, math problems are written by teachers or textbook writers. That’s part of the problem. 

If all your life, you had only read and had never written, you would only have experiences on one side of what it is to be literate. In math, if you’ve only been given the opportunity to solve problems, you’ll never have the experience of authoring. Knowledge production is so important. It enhances the sense of ownership and agency. It creates an “I made this!” mentality, which gives students a sense of empowerment in mathematics.

By having students write their own math problems and express creatively through mathematics, I believe it helps children see their ideas have value and purpose. 

I was the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant that explored things kids interacted with and enjoyed outside of school — sports, games and watching TV shows like Cyberchase on PBS, an educational math program. The goal was to help teachers find ways to bring the outside world into the classroom, to build lesson plans around things beyond textbooks.

What I learned through this project has been integrated into MSU's Teacher Preparation Program and is still in use today. Future Spartan educators learn to get to know their students outside of the classroom in order to bring those experiences into lesson plans. 

The kids’ creativity and joy in learning just exploded when they participated in the NSF study. In those early learning years, that’s crucial. If kids get the idea that you have to conform to particular ways — learn in particular formats — they will give it up. It’s not a fight we should be fighting.

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