Teacher education professor Diane Barrett solves the problem of teaching hands-on math concepts in a virtual classroom

Professor of Education Diane Barrett, who teaches university students how to be K-12 teachers, is committed to overcoming hurdles faced during online classes.  

By Emily Burkhart.

Diane Barrett
Diane Barrett

With last spring’s shuttering of in-person learning for students from kindergarten through college, Diane Barrett, director and professor of education at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo School of Education, has implemented strategies for learners both young and experienced to succeed during the age of remote instruction.

As an educator of future K-12 educators, Barrett’s hands-on and learner-centered approaches have far-reaching reverberations for the pandemic era and beyond. It’s clear her commitment to overcoming hurdles with her own students will surely reverberate throughout the island as future Hawaiʻi teachers implement her strategies for their own students.

Teaching and learning hands-on math concepts from remote locations

Barrett, whose specialty is in math and science pedagogy, says the transition to a virtual format for her course on math for elementary school teachers brought some significant hurdles. “It’s a very hands-on class,” she says. “That class,” which prepares students to teach in an elementary classroom, “is really difficult online.”

The course (ED 343) is a hands-on, problem-based course designed to help elementary teachers develop a basic understanding of the ten NCTM (National Council for Teachers of Mathematics) standards, including content area skills as well as process and thinking that relate to mathematic problem-solving, reasoning, connections, communication and representation. Students in the class study fractions, algebraic reasoning, and geometry.

Barrett says her strategy for this course and in teaching future teachers in UH Hilo’s master of arts in teaching program, especially those working with younger learners, relies heavily on the use of manipulatives that don’t necessarily translate well to a virtual format. Manipulatives are physical tools of teaching that engage children visually and physically with objects such as blocks and puzzles. When teachers use manipulatives, youngsters are actively engaged in discovery during the learning process.

“It’s really hard to learn to teach just using virtual manipulatives,” Barrett says. “For little ones, we’re talking grades K-6, for math they really need to actually start using things hands-on because it makes a special connection in the brain. And that is difficult to do with online learning.”

As elementary schools have gone online for the time being, Barrett says it is more important than ever that young ones are using manipulatives at home to supplement remote instruction. This is also important for those doing the teaching. To bridge this new gap of hands-on teaching and learning in a virtual classroom, the professor has seen to the implementation of a pick-up and drop-off system for sanitized kits of manipulatives at UH Hilo’s campus. These training tools can be re-created for young learners by her students while they are finishing off their teaching practicum in the field.

Screenshot of math class on Zoom with grid of student faces using manipulatives.
In an online class, Diane Barrett’s students learn how to use a manipulative to teach math concepts to children. Prof. Barrett has implemented a pick-up and drop-off system for sanitized kits of manipulatives at UH Hilo’s campus. Courtesy photo from D. Barrett.

Connecting with students

Professor presence, or maintaining the intimacy of face-to-face classroom dynamics in a remote learning environment, is also something that many educators have struggled with in a virtual format. But Barrett’s students have noted her success at being fully present in her online classes. One student from an anonymous survey conducted last semester to evaluate the success of faculty transitioning to online classes, says the professor “did an excellent job at keeping the same pace and making the online learning experience positive. She would be an excellent person to show other professors how to create virtual lessons that have professor presence.”

Barrett says another challenge she has faced as an educator in the age of Zoom has been to overcome the sea of black boxes during class when students can’t or won’t turn on their cameras, as visual clues are more important than ever in remote instruction.

“The reason I like to see their faces is that we take a lot of cues as teachers from our students from just the look on their face,” she says. “By not having that, it makes it a lot more difficult to make sure they’re getting it because I can’t do a temperature check.”

To accommodate for circumstances where students cannot have a camera on, she makes the “Chat” function on Zoom a secondary option for student response during class, stays after to chat with shy students, and encourages students to reach out via email for any other questions.

“I’d rather they talk to me and I help them with it than they just sit there and get stressed,” she says.

Uncovering the language of mathematics

Barrett’s strategies for student success come in part out of her ten years spent as a high school math teacher. Before the time of virtual manipulatives, Barrett could see that students seemed to struggle with math that was just “pushing around symbols.”

After successful results from designing tools out of everyday items to create a hands-on mathematical experience, Barrett was propelled on to complete her doctoral studies in math education.

“I always tell my master’s students that you have to answer the question for your students, ‘why do I need to know this?’ It has to be relevant. Math is all around us,” she says. “One of my favorite quotes is Galileo, who said, ‘Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.’ It’s up to us to uncover it.”

When Professor Barrett encounters students that struggle to find relevance in learning mathematical concepts, she encourages them to write down how many times they use math in one day. “They get tired of writing!” she says.

Barrett’s commitment to innovative and engaging mathematics education has not faltered in the face of pandemic struggles.

The kits she has devised to train future educators are both effective and affordable, keeping in mind that many teachers pay for these costs out of pocket. “Fraction fringe,” for example, is only the cost of two sheets of paper, as well as her lesson on positive/negative integers, which utilizes inexpensive tile spacers to make plus and minus signs.

For pre-service teachers in the master’s program, Barrett reports that there have been no pandemic-related delays in completing the practicum portion of their education. “That’s our role as professors right now, to really support our K-12 teachers and our future teachers,” she says.

“The biggest thing I want my students to know is that I care about them. And I care that they understand the content. So, we find whatever way we can to make that happen. When we switched to virtual, we’re still going to do whatever we can to make sure that happens.”


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.