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January 11, 2007

Teacher’s teacher: ‘Ginger’ Warfield wins national math education award

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Virginia “Ginger” Warfield, UW senior lecturer in math, always knew she’d become a mathematician — it was in the genes, you might say. Her family made it clear, she says, that “the only reasonable thing for an adult to be was a mathematician, and that of course I could be one.”

But it wasn’t until her university career was under way that Warfield’s interest in mathematics education — how K-12 teachers teach math — began to grow.

Now that interest, which long ago evolved into a professional focus that involved Warfield in several grant-funded projects to improve classroom math education, has earned her one of the field’s most prestigious honors.

This week, Warfield was in New Orleans to receive the 2007 Louise Hay Award from the nationwide Association for Women in Mathematics. The award was named for one of the association’s founding members, a longtime math educator who died in 1989. The association’s Web site states that Hays’ “devotion to students and her lifelong commitment to nurturing the talent of young women and men secure(d) her reputation as a consummate educator.”

The same could be said of Warfield, who after 30 years of teaching still retains a bright-eyed enthusiasm for her work, both with UW students and with teachers in the many community schools whose performance she has improved.

“She’s an incredible colleague,” said Selim Tuncel, chair of the UW Mathematics Department. “She loves her work and is full of energy. She’s an extremely warm person — she really cares about people and that comes through in her work.”

Another family message, Warfield said, was that the reasonable course would be to marry a mathematician. This she did in 1964, marrying Bob Warfield, whom she met while attending Bryn Mawr (he attended Haverford, which coordinates programs with the women’s college). “We met in the college orchestra,” she said. “I played violin and he played double bass.” He went on to Harvard, while she attended Brown, where she earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees, finishing in 1971.

While finishing her doctorate, Warfield learned that a branch of the national education nonprofit organization Project SEED was to open in Seattle, where she had already moved. Project SEED sends trained mathematicians as master teachers into public elementary schools to engage students in non-lecture, “discovery-based” education. “The thinking was that if you got inner-city students early enough you could teach them algebra by group discovery,” Warfield said, adding that this can reduce their fears of math in high school.

She learned the branch needed a director in order to open. She was offered and accepted the position.

The job, though busy, was a perfect fit. “It was seminal to my passion for the kind of teaching I do,” Warfield said. “I got to visit all the Seattle classes, and I also got to choose which one I taught. Never one for half-measures, I chose the class with the lowest scores in the city on standardized tests — and watched them soak up exponents and variables and linear equations.”

As a result, math test scores rose dramatically. This strengthened Warfield’s belief in this concept of teaching and her interest in elementary education. “There’s no way, after that year, that anyone could tell me that low-scoring children lacked intellectual capacity,” she said. “Nor could I be told that elementary teachers have an easy job.”

The good thing lasted, but only so long. “I was there two and a half years and then the funding disappeared,” she said with a laugh. “One of my recurring weaknesses.”

During those years her family life deepened. “My year as superwoman was 1970-71. I was finishing my doctorate and working one-and-a-half time. And then I had my first baby.” Her husband had joined the UW in 1968; she followed in 1973. “He loved research and I got hooked on teaching,” she said, “and we both loved spending time with the kids.”

When the youngest of their three children was of school age, Warfield was ready for something new. She grabbed an opportunity to design and teach a math course for nonmajors, Math 107, and added that to her other job of running the department’s remedial mathematics program.

In 1986, her growing interest in education led her to begin teaching Math 170/71, the course for elementary teachers in training. “It became my baby,” she said. She has taught the class ever since.

The evolution in that class over the years, she said, has paralleled changes in the larger climate of mathematics education – toward constructivism, or interactively building upon student knowledge – rather than simply lecturing and assigning equation-filled worksheets.

At first she used standard textbooks and did much lecturing. But in time that style gave way to a newer and, most feel, more effective approach. “To get people to understand a concept, you put them in a situation where they need it and you know from what they have already done that they have the wherewithal to develop it,” she said.

The difference between this and the older style of instruction mirrors the national controversy over math education, where more conservative voices see the lack of workbooks and old-style instruction and famously ask, “Where’s the math?”

Tempers run high in this argument, Warfield said, and extremists on both sides tend to overreact. She said she tries to avoid inflammatory language while making clear her belief that the focus of teaching needs to be on understanding rather than on computational skills for their own sake.

She also feels strongly that the debate is so important, it ought to be above politics. “Unfortunately,” she said, “there are now forces at work trying to reverse everything my colleagues and I have been doing to help teachers adjust to what I call teaching for understanding.” She said she can no longer simply say “I don’t do politics.” Instead, she feels ever more ready to defend the standards-based WASL state assessment system and the Essential Learning Requirements on which it is based, both basically constructivist in design.

Along the way, Warfield also teamed with French education theorist Guy Brousseau, a pioneer in the “didactics of mathematics,” which is the scientific study of issues in math teaching and learning. This collaboration produced several articles and finally a monograph, with Warfield evolving from translator to co-author, further underscoring the constructivist theme.

Warfield’s husband grew ill with cancer in the late 1980s, and died in 1989. She kept working through her grief. “The confidence and trust of our three children not only kept me from falling apart, but also made it possible for me to gain momentum in the direction we had set for me, and sustain it through many solo years,” she said. That solo status ended in 2005, however, when she married Rosh Doan, who she said, “gave me a new kind of support by providing the perspective of a pediatrician combined with the interest of a lifelong learner.”

Professionally over more recent years, Warfield has been prominent in three major National Science Foundation-funded teacher-enhancement projects that team University faculty and graduate students with classroom teachers to improve teaching of math.

One of these, titled Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12, for short) began in 2001 and showed its effectiveness within just a few years. It was encouraging, she said, when at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Seattle, an urban school with about 70 percent African-American students, the percentage of students passing the WASL rose from under 10 percent to 55 percent in two years.

Warfield’s leadership and influence have served several projects since. These include:

  • Leading the Preparing Future Faculty project from 1994 to 2001, which provided innovative options and experiences for graduate students,
  • Running a series of “brown bag seminars” for faculty and graduate students to discuss issues related to teaching and learning, and posting electronic newsletters expanding these discussions, and
  • Creating the group Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics, which brings mathematics and mathematics education faculty throughout the state together for an annual weekend of idea-sharing.

Letters of nomination sent to the Association for Women in Mathematics glow with praise for Warfield’s dedication and commitment to excellence.

“It would be difficult to overstate the contributions Ginger has made to mathematics education,” wrote Janet P. Ray, a professor emerita from Seattle Central Community College, who gladly hired and worked with several of what she calls “Ginger graduates” over the years.

“Whether through the organizations she has founded, the events she’s sponsored or the connections she’s forged, Ginger’s work has had a huge impact.”