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ODU's Wakefield Nets 2nd Fulbright Award

Can play choices in kindergarten lead to improved math skills? Do teaching methodologies of kindergarten teachers have a real impact on whether - or if - the age of a student affects the relationship between gender and choice? Old Dominion University's Alice Wakefield has just been awarded a second Fulbright Award to do research that considers these questions and has implications for how we support math thinking in young children, especially girls.

Together with Asiye Ivrendi, assistant professor of early childhood education at Pamukkale University in Denizli, Turkey, noted children's author Wakefield will introduce Turkish educators to constructivist teaching and learning while the two continue their research investigating gender differences of freely chosen physical knowledge activities in preschool/kindergarten children both at Pamukkale and Old Dominion.

As the nature-nurture argument that boys do better than girls in math persists, how early these differences show up and whether teachers play a role in determining the outcome are of particular interest to elementary educators. In Wakefield's research, an examination of free choice reveals how children choose to do math, which is not necessarily how they are taught to do it. Free choice allows the investigator to get close to separating the "nature" and "nurture" questions that often muddy gender studies.

There aren't many Fulbright awards that involve university exchanges, and the application process was complex, but Wakefield, an associate professor of early childhood education, and Ivrendi, who first met in 1997 when Ivrendi completed a master's degree in early childhood education at ODU, persevered together. After 11 years of scholarly exchanges over a great distance, the award funds will bring Ivrendi to ODU in the fall of 2008 and send Wakefield to Pamukkale next spring.

Wakefield's research during her first Fulbright-funded trip - to Qatar in 2002-03 - enabled her to document gender differences in third graders' choices of math strategies. With this second grant she will investigate how (or if) the age of the student plays into the relationship between gender and choice. Implicit in this investigation are the effects on the students of the teacher's approach to both the material and the student, or the teacher's theory of learning.

Constructivism is Jean Piaget's theory of learning, which argues that humans construct meaning from current knowledge structures. It leads to new beliefs about excellence in teaching and learning and about the roles of both teachers and students in the process. In constructivist classrooms, students are active rather than passive; teachers are facilitators of learning rather than transmitters of knowledge.

"In Qatar, as in Turkey," Wakefield observes, "there is government interest in educational change toward constructivist learning. Constructivist teachers orchestrate opportunities for problem solving, invention and inference, and let their students do the talking. Because traditional teaching was so entrenched in Qatar, I learned to try new strategies, such as team teaching with Qatari teachers, to help establish very different learning environments for young children. I plan to use and expand upon these strategies in Turkey."

At a time when bias against Islam- and Arab-speaking people is particularly high, Wakefield says it is not a little ironic that American students and teachers will benefit from the information and insights she will glean from her work in Turkey. Because both the Pamukkale University and Old Dominion University primary teacher preparation programs are strong, she believes that the benefits of this interaction will be transmitted forward to colleagues and students at both institutions.

"Some of the ways that I adapted my teaching for the Qatari teachers have worked well for me upon my return to Virginia, and I have continued to use them. I expect that I will learn more new teaching strategies from colleagues in Turkey, which I will incorporate into my teaching."

Wakefield's extensive travels, she believes, help make her a good ambassador for her university and her country. Her intimate experiences with foreign families have made her more friendly, adaptable and culturally sensitive. "For example, while traveling in Turkey in 2001, I spent the night with a Turkish family in Guzelyurt. We spent the evening 'talking' with an English/Turkish dictionary on our laps. I even helped milk the family cow for the breakfast milk the next morning. That was quite an adaptation for me at the time.

"I spent two weeks in Japan when I taught at Kitakyushu University," she continued. "I had some interesting times ordering in restaurants and getting around on public transportation. The longest period of living abroad was my Fulbright experience in Qatar. This involved many cultural adaptations: my dress, my manners, my holidays, the climate, the desert, the calendar, the driving. … My whole life has been profoundly affected by living as a minority in an Islamic country for 10 months. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was to overcome preconceived notions about a culture very diverse from my own.

"I expected men with multiple wives to be cads - they weren't. I expected women to be compliant. They were the opposite. I expected the madrasas (the Arabic word for any type of school, secular or religious) to use rote learning and drill - they didn't. I didn't expect such good food, such big buildings. I didn't know about Arabic hospitality and received invitations to weddings, celebrations, family dinners and women-only dancing parties. In fact, when I planned a typical American bridal shower for a young teacher, it turned into a wild Arabic dance. I expect working and living in Turkey will offer many cultural adaptations, but also many opportunities for exchanges of good will."

Alice Wakefield is the author of "Those Calculating Crows," which was named to the Bank Street College list of 1997 Notable Children's Books of the Year. She often gives talks to teachers and students who are interested in writing for children. Wakefield is president of the Association for Constructivist Teaching (ACT), a professional educational organization with members in the U.S., Brazil, China, Mexico, Japan and Australia. ACT is dedicated to fostering teacher development based on providing rich, problem-solving environments that encourage learner investigation, invention and inference.

This article was posted on: April 18, 2008

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