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Despina Stylianou
Associate Professor of Education

Fostering "Mathematical Practices" in Urban Classrooms: Focus on Representation and Justification


Mathematics is a gatekeeper discipline to success in today’s technological society, but it is often a stumbling block for students in urban schools, for whom traditional mathematics instruction has not proved fruitful. Despina Sylianou hopes that her research into new ways of teaching mathematics will help turn that situation around.

Dr. Stylianou’s field is mathematical practices, that is, the specific processes that successful mathematics learners engage in, such as the use of justifications and various representations. The role of these practices in school mathematics has been peripheral at best, especially in diverse, urban environments where students have been traditionally under-performing in mathematics.

Recent reform efforts are calling for a shift in mathematics instruction to foster the development of such practices in all students. The focus of Dr. Stylianou’s CAREER award is to develop a better understanding of how these practices work in a challenging instructional setting. Her goal is deeper insight into the forms of pedagogy and content that support student learning in urban mathematics programs.


“Being at City College, I am exceptionally well-placed to undertake this project,” says Dr. Stylianou, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh. “Most of the students in my education classes went to schools very much like the one we are studying and will ultimately teach in similar schools. Their insights will be invaluable.” 


Dr. Stylianou’s project begins with a broad analysis of a large number of urban students’ conceptions of mathematical practices. She will then follow a group of middle school students in a school near the CCNY campus for five years, tracing the development of their competencies in the mathematical practices of representation and justification, and identifying conditions that influence that development. “Education,” says Dr. Stylianou, “is a socio-cultural process. We cannot separate the difficulties urban students experience in learning mathematics from the challenges of the environment in which they live. I want my work to make a difference in the lives of children who need it most.”


Dr. Stylianou will also analyze classroom teaching practices which influence students’ competencies in mathematics. She will engage teachers in her target school in professional development activities designed to enhance their understanding of middle school students’ development of mathematical reasoning and classroom practices that promote that development. Her work will ultimately lead to recommendations for curriculum development and instruction.

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