Running Math Circles and Marathons, Penn GSE Student Leads the Pack

As a kid, Joshua Taton, genuinely enjoyed studying math in school.

“I loved theory: proving theorems and linking broad ideas together into a logical framework. Math had a certain purity, completeness or even artistic appeal that I found fascinating,” explains the Ph.D. student in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Taton grew up in Gorham, a small town of about 10,000 people in southern Maine, 30 minutes west of Portland. After earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Yale University in 1998, he wanted to share his love of math and learning with young students.  So, he became a teacher.

But, after teaching grades 5-8 for a number of years, he found himself grappling with questions he could not answer. This led to a new interest in math-education research.  Now, at age 37, Taton is studying all of those things at Penn GSE.

“I understood what seemed to work in my classrooms and what seemed not to work, but I wanted to know whether this was just intuition,” Taton says. “I wanted to know what researchers had learned about the teaching and learning of math.  In particular, I wanted to learn about best practices, new curricula and new teaching methods.”

As a part of Improving Curriculum Use for Better Teaching, or ICUBiT, a National Science Foundation-funded project, he worked with co-principal investigators Janine Remillard of GSE and Ok-Kyeong Kim from Western Michigan University.  The research team set out to understand what it takes for teachers to use curriculum resources productively in designing classroom instruction.

At the 2013 American Educational Research Association annual conference in San Francisco, Taton, as part of a team, presented a paper that he co-authored about the ways curriculum packages supported teachers in understanding student thinking.

“Our primary finding was that the curricula provided activities to address the diverse needs of students, broadly-defined, such as learners of English as a second language, but that they did not provide as much support to help teachers understand students’ mathematical errors or their possible range of mathematically-sound responses,” Taton says.

While there is no easy solution to the education crisis in cities across the U.S., as a former teacher and as a doctoral student, Taton says one way to make a substantial difference is simply by changing the nature of the enterprise.  

“Right now, the primary objectives of schooling appear to be career and college readiness,” Taton explains. “By focusing almost exclusively on skill-oriented learning, we are potentially hindering students’ growth in other important ways.”

He points to the importance of being flexible and the need to secure adequate funding and additional support.

“Teachers deserve to have constructive, high-quality feedback to help them grow, and to facilitate this requires thinking broadly, well beyond standardized testing,” he adds.

Taton serves on the leadership team for the Philadelphia Area Math Teachers’ Circle, which has just completed its first full academic year.

“Teaching is an unimaginably difficult and demanding job,” he explains. “As a teacher, I found that I didn’t have many opportunities to nurture my love of math, to actually do math.  I spent the bulk of my time as a teacher doing grading, administrative work, meeting with students and families -– all worthwhile and necessary work, but there wasn’t much space for math-related inquiry.” 

The Circle, one of only about 50 in the country, addresses these deficits.

“We give the teachers a single challenging problem to tackle in under two hours,” Taton explains. “The idea is that teachers will make mathematical discoveries on their own and use their own language to explain to each other the justifications for their work.”

It is already having an impact on how math is being taught in the classroom.

After surveying the nearly 40 attendees, the early indications are that teachers are modifying their classroom practices as a result of their work with the Math Teachers’ Circle.  This includes asking their students to explain their thinking more often, giving more challenging group-work problems and allowing their students to wrestle with the mathematics for a longer period of time. 

Taton has another interest, one outside the classroom.

Since coming to Penn, he has completed four marathons, along with a number of half-marathons and 10-milers, like Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run.  His running form and training methods have evolved, thanks to his diligent research about improving his skills.  After finishing the Philadelphia Marathon in less than three hours, he’s now qualified to run the Boston Marathon in 2014. 

He has also developed a love for Philadelphia’s great restaurants, museums and outdoor areas like Fairmount Park.  Taton’s lived in the city for 15 years and says one of the best things about being at a part of the Penn community is Penn Rec’s fitness and recreation opportunities, like rock climbing, golf lessons and homecoming races.

He’s also a fan of the Graduate Student Center, because it serves as a vital resource, in terms of activities, events, navigating graduate life and making social connections.

When he’s not working, studying, volunteering or running on the Schuylkill River Path, he’s relaxing at home, watching re-runs of the “Big Bang Theory,” with his partner, Andrea, and their rescued dog and cats.

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