Aki Murata Finds Vocation in Teaching Mathematics Teaching

By Lisa Stein with photo by Ralph Granich

When Aki Murata (PhD02) was named assistant professor of education at Stanford University in August, she reached one more milestone in a life marked by unexpected twists and turns, a love of education and an openness to fresh starts.

Along the way Murata found her vocation in elementary mathematics education, in particular finding ways to help teachers make mathematics meaningful and appealing to students. What she calls her "common sense" approach to mathematics education stems from her belief that mathematics has the power to engage and stimulate if presented the right way.

"Students of any age have experience with math at some point in their lives," she asserts. "It is our responsibility as educators to pull out their knowledge and understanding, then connect them with new experiences in school."

Building connections with life experiences is something Murata knows well. She grew up in the Japanese city of Chigasaki, located south of Tokyo. Her father was ill much of her childhood, and as the oldest child she went to work at the age of 18 to help support her family. She found her first job selling clocks and watches, but never lost the desire to continue her education.

"I always loved school," she recalls. "I found my strongest identity as a student."

When her youngest sister finished high school, Murata was finally free at 24 to pursue her own dreams. She found, however, that opportunities in Japan for adult education were slim to nonexistent. Undeterred, she applied to universities in the United States and eventually ended up at Ohio State University, where she majored in elementary education.

Murata married and had two children, and got her first hands-on experience with American elementary education when her older son started kindergarten.

As she volunteered in his classroom, she was "fascinated by how different his experience was from my experience," she says. "I was surprised at how teachers become entertainers in this culture. In Japan, teachers get kids' attention with learning topics that are interesting and relevant to their lives. Here learning is done by textbooks and worksheets, and then kids get rewards, like stickers or field trips, to motivate them."

She found a job teaching K–8 mathematics in a small private school in Ohio. Her career path swerved again when she presented a paper at a conference on the psychology of mathematics education and met SESP faculty member Karen Fuson, now professor emeritus of learning sciences. Fuson persuaded Murata to come to Northwestern to get a PhD, and within a year Murata had moved to Evanston, young sons in tow.

Notably, Murata completed her PhD in less than three years, and then received an American Educational Research Association postdoctoral grant to study teacher learning during professional development. She saw that while there were new, innovative mathematics curricula being developed, teachers were not receiving the proper support to implement them successfully in the classroom. "Teachers are very busy people. They need help understanding the goals and purpose of new curricula, which are different from the way they were taught math."

Murata's postdoctoral research involved forming collaborative lesson study groups, where teachers identified specific mathematics goals in a curriculum and then figured out how to teach them in creative, compelling activities. "Teachers saw that teaching math didn't have to involve only drilling and memorization, and they found the meaning of what they were doing," Murata observes.

At Stanford Murata will continue research on teacher development and participate in Stanford's new elementary teacher education program. She is cautiously optimistic about the improvement of mathematics education in the United States. "I think the tide is shifting little by little. I'm hopeful that math education is changing. There are good teachers who are serious about what they do, willing to learn and care about their kids. We have to nurture them so they can continue their good work."
By Lisa Stein