UW–Madison’s Elizabeth Fennema, celebrated for her research on gender and mathematics education, dies

Elizabeth Fennema, a longtime UW–Madison faculty member and pioneering researcher on the teaching and learning of mathematics, died on Dec. 20, 2021.

Photo of Elizabeth Fennema
Elizabeth Fennema

Fennema, a professor emerita, spent 34 years with the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. She was also a senior scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

“Professor Fennema was an inspiring teacher, researcher, leader, and mentor, and she was a fantastic colleague. The School of Education is a different and better place because of her leadership,” said Diana Hess, the dean of the UW–Madison School of Education, upon news of her death.

Fennema had a long and productive career researching the engagement and learning of girls and young women in mathematics classrooms. In 1974, she published a review of the literature on gender differences in mathematics in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, and then joined Julia Sherman to produce what are now known as the Fennema-Sherman Mathematical Attitude Scales. Through their work, Fennema and Sherman enhanced understanding of how gender and achievement intersect in mathematics, and they showed that female students’ underperformance in mathematics was sociocultural in nature. The Scales have been widely used and continue to enable researchers to gather and compare data on the attitudes of young women towards mathematics.

“Liz was one of the first people to talk about gender and mathematics, and the fact that teachers were actually doing things that were inhibiting girls’ participation in mathematics,” said Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor emerita in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the president of the National Academy of Education.

Ladson-Billings noted that Fennema was instrumental in raising awareness of practices that were never considered as being sexist — such as using examples from sports to illustrate math concepts — yet contributed to sexual stereotyping.

Fennema and colleagues were also involved in groundbreaking translation of research and theory in math learning to the practice of teaching children. They developed and studied an innovative method of teaching mathematics called Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI), detailed in “Children’s Mathematics,” which Fennema co-authored with Thomas Carpenter, Megan Loef Franke, Linda Levi, and Susan Empson.

For over 25 years, CGI professional learning has enhanced teachers’ abilities to augment their students’ learning and understanding of math through a focus on students’ mathematical thinking. CGI has had a profound impact on teachers in Wisconsin, across the U.S., and internationally, and reflects Fennema’s deep respect for teachers and the craft of teaching.

Erica Halverson, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, remarked that Fennema was “a pioneer in math education research and a role model for women faculty members in our department and across the School of Education.”

“It is because of her that our department enjoys gender parity and encourages women to take on leadership roles,” she added.

Fennema and her late husband, UW–Madison Professor Emeritus Owen Fennema, met in high school and both completed their bachelor’s degrees at Kansas State University. They then moved to Madison to pursue their master’s degrees — Owen earned a master’s in food science and Elizabeth in education.

Though the Fennemas originally intended to return to Kansas to work in a family dairy business after earning their degrees, their plans shifted due to the Korean Conflict. Owen Fennema joined the military for two years. After he was discharged, he earned his PhD and became a faculty member in the Department of Food Science at UW–Madison.

Elizabeth Fennema entered the PhD program in the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and graduated in 1969, specializing in mathematics instruction.

Elizabeth and Owen Fennema retired from UW–Madison on the same day in 1997.

After her retirement, Elizabeth Fennema led UW–Madison’s program to improve doctoral education that was funded by the Spencer Foundation. The program’s emphasis was bringing doctoral students together across departments and disciplines, giving them a broader view of education research.

Ladson-Billings reflected that after she joined the faculty at UW–Madison, “she couldn’t have asked for a stronger ally” than Elizabeth Fennema. “She wanted people to really stand up for what they were researching,” said Ladson-Billings. “She helped me to really hone my voice and take ownership of my own work.”

“I worked with Liz since coming to Madison after my PhD, in 1970 in the teacher education program,” said Tom Popkewitz, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “Initially a lecturer in the department, she quickly become a national and internationally recognized researcher in mathematics education. As someone who worked in a different intellectual area of the department and as a former chair, Liz was a wonderful, thoughtful, and caring colleague who contributed strongly to the department’s strength and intellectual vitality.”

A phenomenal researcher, author, and educator, Fennema has received many recognitions for her work including awards from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Association for Women in Mathematics Education. She was named a member of the National Academy of Education in 1997.

In 2021, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), culminating her distinguished career.

“Elizabeth Fennema’s excellent work across decades literally changed lives,” said Hess. “Her legacy will continue, and she will be greatly missed.”

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