Fostering Confidence and Competence in Early Childhood Mathematics Teachers

Deborah Rosenfeld brings in-depth knowledge of early childhood mathematics learning and teaching to EDC’s research, professional development, and instructional design initiatives. A former elementary and middle school mathematics teacher, Deborah has worked for EDC for nearly 10 years, starting as a curriculum writer for our Think Math! curriculum. Currently, she is contributing to two studies that focus on preschool mathematics education, the Prekindergarten Transmedia Mathematics Study and the Scaffolding Mastery Motivation Study. In this post, part of a series by our early learning specialists, Deborah reflects on findings from her earlier research that closely relate to her work on these two studies.

Several EDC professional development programs use video to help teachers reflect on their practice, analyze students’ learning, and identify new strategies to meet students’ needs. A few examples include Math for All, Success at the Core, Foundations of Science Literacy, and our instructional coaching for preschool teachers. In my dissertation research at Columbia University, I focused on the potential of video to increase efficacy for teaching mathematics in pre-service early childhood teachers. With two years distance from completing this study, I’ve decided to accept the challenge of revisiting the findings to share what I learned about this promising approach to promoting professional learning.

What Is "Teacher Efficacy"?

Pajares (1996) defines teacher efficacy as the personal belief in one’s capabilities to help students learn. Studies show that this belief in one’s capabilities plays an important role in effective mathematics learning and teaching:

  • Ashton & Webb (1986) found that teacher self-efficacy is associated with teachers’ choice of activities, the amount of effort they expend in teaching and encouraging students, and the degree to which they persist when confronted with difficulties in the classroom.
  • Teacher efficacy has been linked to teachers’ enthusiasm while teaching, commitment to teaching, willingness to embrace innovation, and resilience in the face of failure—as well as to student outcomes such as achievement, motivation, self-efficacy beliefs, and problem solving abilities (Akinsola, 2009).
  • Gibson and Dembo (1984) found that teachers with high self-efficacy are more effective in leading discussions that guide students to correct responses, and Akinsola (2009) found that teachers with high self-efficacy use a greater variety of instructional strategies and are more likely to use inquiry and student-centered teaching strategies than teachers with low self-efficacy.

Methods in Brief

In my study, participants in an undergraduate early childhood program completed five video lessons on topics in early childhood mathematics. In each lesson, they read an essay on a topic related to children’s mathematical thinking, viewed a video of a child engaged in a task, and then watched a clinical interview of this child with an adult. Each video gave participants the vicarious experience of helping a child understand a mathematics topic, as they watched teachers in the videos successfully support young children's early mathematics learning.

Very few studies have looked at the use of video to enhance efficacy. But, studies that have done so have found an increase in efficacy as a result of this type of vicarious experience. For example, Hagan and colleagues (1998) found that viewing videos of effective classroom management techniques improved teachers’ efficacy for managing a classroom.

Focus on Content and Knowledge of Mathematical Development

The videos featured important mathematical content, but also went beyond content to demonstrate knowledge of mathematical development—teachers' knowledge of what children understand mathematically and how they learn mathematics. In each video, teachers modeled what effective questioning and exploration of children’s mathematical understanding looks like. As such, the videos offered tools to build participants' knowledge of mathematical development and strengthen their feeling that they could be efficacious in teaching mathematics to young children. My hypothesis was that the videos would increase both participants’ efficacy in engaging young children in mathematics learning (confidence) and their knowledge of mathematical development (competence). I was interested in how participants’ knowledge of mathematical development might serve as a possible mediator of change in efficacy.  

Study Findings

The study's results confirmed that the video lessons significantly increased participants' efficacy for teaching mathematics. But, the results also showed that knowledge of mathematical development was not a significant mediator of the change in efficacy. In other words, confidence appeared disconnected from competence. However, follow-up analyses revealed some potential reasons for this surprising disconnect.

  • Increased Focus on Students: As participants progressed through the five video lessons, they tended to focus more and more on the student rather than on the teaching within the videos. Because my  measures of efficacy (confidence) and knowledge of mathematical development (competence) both focused on teaching, there was likely a disconnect between what participants were gaining as a result of the study as compared to the learning I was measuring.
  • Deeper Reflection on Content: The participants who did focus on teaching as they progressed through the five video lessons tended to think at a deeper mathematical and cognitive level about the content and its implications for teaching. If more participants had focused on the teaching within the video lessons, it is possible that there would have been a significant increase in their knowledge of mathematical development and a positive relationship between increased confidence and competence in teaching.

These results point to the importance of rich mathematical content within the videos in producing increased confidence and competence in teachers. They also underscore the need to highlight teaching exchanges and strategies within videos of child-adult interactions used for professional development. In future work, I hope to continue to explore the potential for rich videos to enhance teachers’ understandings and practices around early mathematics teaching and learning.