Elizabeth Fennema

  • 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

    Elizabeth Fennema

    Dr. Elizabeth Fennema completed a BS degree in psychology from Kansas State College in 1950, her MA degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1952, and a PhD, also from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in education with an emphasis in mathematics education. She worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1962 to 1996. She is the quintessential model of lifelong learning. Her zest for unearthing answers to important questions, and her persistence in that pursuit, lit a similar fire in students and colleagues.

    Elizabeth Fennema was a pioneer in so many ways. She forged a path in mathematics education for women; she pushed the field to consider gender issues; she created new ways to capture beliefs; she created a research program that was centered in classrooms; and she urged us all to think about issues of equity. Dr. Fennema inspired countless elementary school teachers to rely not on a single math textbook that too often failed to meet students where they were, but instead to flexibly and creatively adapt their teaching to incorporate how children understand number.

    A prodigious researcher, author, and educator, Fennema's myriad works resulted in many honors, notably a Presidential Citation from the American Educational Research Association (AERA; 1997), an inaugural awardee presentation for Outstanding Contribution to Research on Women and Education, and being named a member of the National Academy of Education (NAE) in 1997. During the 1970s, she served on the JRME Editorial Panel and the NCTM Research Advisory Committee, including chairing the committee.

    Dr. Fennema is known for two field-changing bodies of work, either of which alone would be worthy of lasting recognition. First is her work about gender in mathematics. After publishing a review of gender differences literature in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education in 1974, she teamed with Julia Sherman to produce what are now known as the Fennema-Sherman studies. With methodological rigor and new measurement tools (the Fennema-Sherman Scales), the pair redefined knowledge and perspectives on the intersection between gender and achievement in mathematics, showing that underperformance by females was sociocultural in nature and a function of opportunity, and not due to differences in biology. In the 1980s, Dr. Fennema joined Thomas Carpenter and others for another grand body of work that came to be known as cognitively guided instruction (CGI). The research program was a model for applying new theories of constructivism to children's mathematics learning. Dr. Fennema's work in CGI took equally seriously the development of professional development to empower teachers to use their findings to improve elementary mathematics education. This combination of understanding student cognition and developing teacher learning in the same research program was ambitious and relatively novel for the time. As a result, few, if any, mathematics research programs to date have been as comprehensive, rigorous, and beneficial to the field of mathematics education as CGI.

    Fennema has been awarded for her work by the American Educational Research Association and the Association for Women in Mathematics Education and was named a member of the National Academy of Education in 1997.