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Teaching More Than the Numbers

The Mathematics Instructional Reform for All in Lebanon research project, known as MARAL, has been going throughout Lebanon observing and analyzing the teaching of elementary mathematics. With the help of AUB graduate students, the project has made a significant impact on both teachers and pupils. MainGate looks into this exceptional research and service endeavor.

Probably everyone has childhood memories of counting on toes and fingers, chanting the multiplication table in unison, and reaching answers to arithmetic problems without understanding the intricate steps of adding, subtracting, and dividing. Progress in education methodology all over the world has frequently been disturbed by rote memorization and questions de cours. Even today, AUB students sometimes wander along the roads and paths on campus at exam time, holding their books open before them while memorizing lines of text.
MARAL, a joint math-psychology education research project involving a number of elementary schools across Lebanon is at home at AUB, long a champion of independent critical thinking among its students. Spelled out, the acronym adds up to “Mathematics Instructional Reform for All in Lebanon,” and its aim is to foster high-level thinking, reasoning, and communication in the mathematics classroom by developing problem-solving skills through activities that call for critical thinking and creativity. To achieve this, MARAL’s researchers have been promoting new teaching and learning processes in elementary school mathematics classrooms in a number of schools across Lebanon, using the tools of videotaping, classroom observation, and interviews.
The work of MARAL revolves around two equally important arms of endeavor: one, to explore the role of critical thinking, reasoning, and communication in actual mathematics classroom practices, and two, to use the significant feedback gleaned from those observations to design appropriate professional development experiences for the teachers involved in the educational process.
MARAL is the brainchild of two young female professors at AUB. Marjorie Henningsen, assistant professor of math education, and Samar Zebian, assistant professor of psychology, first met at a new-faculty orientation gathering in Marquand House in the fall of 2000. Spotting their shared interest in the learning process, they immediately entered into a dialogue of project planning. Henningsen’s strength lies in researching mathematics classroom practices and professional development for teachers; while Zebian, a native speaker of Arabic, focuses on human cognition and culture. Combining their best strengths, the two began brainstorming.
In discussing research options, the two decided on a project that would focus on understanding and describing just what was going on in the country’s elementary math classrooms. The adoption of a new comprehensive curriculum in 1999 by the National Council for Educational Research and Development (NCERD) had sparked their interest in investigating implementation of the critical thinking approach in Lebanon’s educational system and, at the same time, in finding out just how the new math curriculum was being applied in the country’s elementary schools.
A number of central questions were asked:
• What is the nature of the mathematical tasks that engage students in Lebanese elementary classrooms?
• To what extent are students learning to think, reason, and communicate at a high level in mathematics?
• In what ways does the teaching observed in the elementary classrooms serve to support (or inhibit) student engagement in high-level thinking, reasoning, and communicating in mathematics?
• What is the nature of the professional development needed to assist teachers in training their students to think, reason, and communicate at a high level in mathematics? (MARAL’s “Preliminary Technical Report,” March 2003.)
The establishment of MARAL began in the fall of 2001 with funds provided by the University Research Board as well as the Middle East Research Competition (MERC) of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. And, with the backing of the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the provost, released teaching time for the principal co-researchers was paid for through the Hewlett research grants program for junior faculty.
During the summer of 2002, information about the MARAL project was sent out to some 500 schools throughout Lebanon in order to gauge interest in MARAL. Forty affirmative responses were received from all areas of the country, some of them representing associations of schools. Henningsen and Zebian then spent about six weeks visiting all the schools that had expressed interest in participating. Eventually, thirteen schools were selected for intensive data collection, while the other schools that had completed the application were invited to participate in the professional development arm of MARAL. The schools selected were well-organized and animated by “coordination, trust and openness among teachers and administration,” according to Henningsen. They expressed willingness to emphasize the importance of higher-level thinking in their elementary mathematics classrooms and showed that they were motivated to develop this element in the mathematics curriculum. They also reflected a nearly representative sample of educational institutions in Lebanon, which included both public and private schools, English and Arabic language of instruction (but excluding French because of lack of language fluency among the researchers and assistants), and a geographical distribution embracing schools in Beirut, the Beqa’a, the Chouf, and the South.
Professor Henningsen stressed the complexity of the selection process: “We actually rejected some applicants because they did not clearly reflect participation by everyone involved at the school. The whole process was designed to be interactive. We wanted schools that were really serious about the goals, because we knew the whole process would be invasive and time-consuming.” The researchers avoided authoritarian principals who might impose methodology. “We wanted direct teacher involvement in change, not imposition from above by principals and/or coordinators. We wanted to go to schools where the principals, coordinators, and teachers were all coming from the same place vis-à-vis the need for higher-level thinking in elementary math classes.” In other words, the investigators looked for total commitment to the project on the part of the schools selected for intensive data collection.


After the completion of pilot videotaping and classroom observations, the first MARAL workshop for teachers was held at AUB on September 14, 2002. Over 175 school principals, coordinators and teachers from more than 30 schools attended this launching of MARAL’s activities by AUB professors, graduate students, and local consultants. The workshops (three have already been held and others are planned) are designed to implement the second arm of the project.
Henningsen underscored the relationships established between the researchers and the schools: “There are a lot of people in the schools who want this kind of interaction with university people,” and want to see it continue through the workshops. “I really don’t think one can just go in and take one’s data and run—it’s really unethical. So the service and professional development side of the project is not superfluous; it’s essential.” School-based research and service, Henningsen feels, must be intertwined.
Zebian pointed out that the interactive communication with school personnel sometimes threatened to founder on cultural perceptions of the role of teachers and especially on the role of research in the classroom. “At some level, many teachers were expecting us to give them explicit instructions about their teaching practices, but we wanted to hear and learn from them in order to make things relevant and practical. We realized early on that it was important to set the tone, to assure them that they had status in our eyes. We wanted the teachers to feel that what they offered to the project was valuable and that the MARAL project was a partnership between them and us.”

The actual fieldwork was carried out during the 2002–03 academic year by Henningsen and Zebian, along with six research assistants and one outside consultant. Actually finding the schools and collecting the data frequently took on the proportions of an adventure.
“We weren’t looking at your IC [International College] or ACS [the American Community School],” said Henningsen. “A kerosene stove in one school in the Beqa’a threatened our recorders, video cameras, and jackets.” Zebian recalled that when the sounds of chickens pecking at the window of another school were recorded, she was prompted to remind her colleagues of the sometimes stark realities that mark the lives of many teachers and students in the isolated rural areas of Lebanon.
Other obstacles confronted the MARAL team. “Believe it or not,” Henningsen said, “the warm hospitality of the people in the schools was sometimes a hindrance. They were quite serious about being hospitable, and we were quite serious about our data collection and punctuality. We nearly drowned in coffee and Tang, but in the end it was a wonderful experience.”
Despite the obstacles, however, videotaped observations of 249 elementary mathematics lessons in 13 schools (five public and eight
private) were completed by the end of spring 2003. Armed with this database, unique in Lebanon, the team began their data analysis, which centered on thought skills, communication and collaborative learning, the use of tools, language fluency and literacy, and cultural and social norms in the classroom.
The researchers heavily stressed critical thinking in the performance of mathematical tasks. The emphasis was on learning to write down the steps involved in problem-solving. They also monitored the willingness of math students to participate in their lessons, as well as the contribution of language fluency (or its lack) to the process. The treatment of errors and their use in the learning process were of primary significance, as was the students’ ability to explain and justify their solutions. “Young children,” a preliminary report affirmed, “often need a great deal of encouragement to reflect on their work in school, and they also need to be given tools to help them do so.” The researchers emphasized flexible interaction not only between the teacher and the students, but also among the students themselves.

The MARAL project remains a rich source for research. “All along,” said Henningsen, “we wanted to create a database that could be used to generate research on a variety of issues and to draw undergraduate and graduate students into the enterprise in meaningful ways. That makes us happy.” Already graduate students are using the database for more specific, sharply defined investigations. One AUB graduate student in psychology is currently analyzing teacher behaviors that support or inhibit
critical thinking. Another student is examining how teachers respond to errors and what happens when they are made in the classroom, and a third is embarking on a study of code-switching (changing from one language to another) and how it affects the quality of mathematical communication. On the whole, the MARAL results will have at least some continuing life in the 2004–05 academic year, as students continue to mine the database for their theses and other projects. Yet, with funding coming to an end, the future of the project is in doubt. “I don’t know whether we’ll ever be able to wrap it up completely,” said Henningsen. “In a few months we’ll have finished with the large-scale analysis, but I hope MARAL will live on in some form.”
The reactions of participants seem to support continuation of the project. A teacher from the Beqa’a said, “We are always trying our best for our students, but most of the time we feel forgotten. I could not believe that the MARAL people kept coming back. Maybe they are a little crazy. We learned a lot, but we need more. This is the kind of thing you cannot stop working on; you never get finished. You can always do better.”