Faculty Spotlight: Johnna Bolyard

Dr. Johnna Bolyard, a mathematics education professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literacy Studies, is on a mission to make mathematics accessible for all teachers and students.

“I’m a very big believer that everybody can learn math, and I think we have this narrative that either you’re a math person or you’re not,” Bolyard said. “I have never believed that.  I feel, in many ways, it’s my job to prove that wrong and to figure out ways to help people change their perspective and to teach in ways which people can learn.”

Bolyard’s methods courses are primarily comprised of elementary education students, many of whom do not feel that mathematics is their strongest subject; however, they must be able to grasp mathematical methods in order to teach the subject to their students.

“Elementary education teachers are generalists – they have to know everything,” Bolyard explained. “And it’s no secret that a lot of folks who go into elementary education don’t really like math.  Most of them never have. If you ask them, they’ll probably identify more as reading specialists.”

After noticing this trend among elementary education students, Bolyard and her CEHS colleague, Dr. Keri Valentine, decided to investigate students’ experiences with mathematics. The premise of the research is to find out what past struggles the students bring to the classroom and to investigate ways to reverse those students’ negative perceptions of the subject.

“We wanted to find out more about what they brought to our work,” Bolyard said. “And if we could understand a little bit more about how they experienced mathematics throughout their lives, we might be able to better respond to how we can support them in being more open and thinking about new ways that they can support their students in the subject in the future.”

Through their research, Bolyard and Valentine have found the practice of engaging students in productive struggle as an effective means of teaching mathematics. According to Bolyard, the concept of productive struggle, encouraging learning through numerous attempts at solving a problem, has proven success in the classroom.

“Research indicates that struggle is a part of learning,” Bolyard said. “And, in fact, it is really one of the essential elements to truly learning something new.”

However, getting future teachers on board with the idea of productive struggle is a challenge, since encouraging students to struggle seems counterintuitive.

“Most future teachers, when they think of struggle, think about it as something as they’re supposed to remove from the classroom – particularly with math,” Bolyard said. “But productive struggle doesn’t mean that the student just sits and struggles and cries, not getting anywhere. It actually means that you’re working on a big idea; you’re working on a new idea, so you’re challenging yourself through it.”

This April, Bolyard and Valentine presented their findings at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference. The conference, held annually, allows researchers to share their findings and find new inspiration for their work. Bolyard has been attending since her time as a doctoral student, and she’s rarely missed a conference.

“Being able to share your research, ideas and work, then getting feedback, is very valuable,” Bolyard said. “Getting a sense of what others are doing that connects to my work also helps me to think about it a little differently.”

Throughout the course of her time as a researcher, Bolyard has made many discoveries, but one stands out above the rest.

“Teaching is incredibly complex,” Bolyard said. “I don’t know that that’s a discovery; I think I always knew that. But the more I research and the more I learn emphasizes that point, underlines it and bolds it.”

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