“If you like the teacher, you’ll ‘get’ maths more”: Students talk about good mathematics teachers

This post was originally published in 2010 on the UWS 21st Century Learning Blog. The discussion relates to my PhD research on the influences on student engagement in maths during the middle years of school and findings have subsequently been published in academic journals (see, for example, Attard 2011, 2012). I thought it would be interesting to revisit since things don’t seem to have changed much in relation to the issue of students ‘turning off’ maths.

Many students during the middle years of schooling (Year 5 to Year 8 in New South Wales) are experiencing emotional, social, physical, and cognitive changes that must be dealt with in the mathematics classroom. Mathematics curriculum and instruction must address the particular needs of these students because so many jobs and indeed the demands of everyday living now and in the future, require complex mathematical thinking. Over the last 20 years research has overwhelming documented an increasingly smaller percentage of students pursuing the study of mathematics at upper secondary level and beyond. The choice not to pursue mathematics has been seriously influenced by students’ attitudes towards and performance in mathematics, in turn deeply shaped by school mathematical experiences and the teaching they experienced in school (Nardi & Steward, 2003).

So, what makes a good mathematics teacher? There are several frameworks that address ‘good’ teaching including the Quality Teaching Framework (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2003) and the Standards for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics in Australian schools (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers [AAMT], 2006). But how do the frameworks compare to what students think about the qualities of a good mathematics teacher? My PhD thesis was a longitudinal study on engagement in middle years mathematics and early in the study I asked a group of 20 Year 6 students at a Western Sydney school to name the qualities that make a ‘good’ mathematics teacher. The students perceived a good maths teacher to be someone who:

  • is passionate about teaching mathematics;
  • responds to students’ individual needs;
  • gives clear explanations;
  • uses scaffolding rather than providing answers;
  • encourages positive attitudes towards mathematics; and
  • shows an awareness of each students’ prior knowledge.

The study followed the same group of students through their transition to high school, and into Year 8. During their time in secondary school, the students’ experiences included a wide range of practices and teachers, and significant exposure to technology within the mathematics classroom (a one-to-one laptop program). Despite being exposed to an integrated curriculum and a school that was purpose built to cater for ‘next-practice’ learning and teaching, it was the teachers and the relationships that were developed within the classroom that had the most significant impact on student engagement in mathematics. It appeared that the introduction of technology during Year 7 had removed many of the opportunities for student/teacher and student/student interaction that are such an integral aspect of learning mathematics. During their time in Year 7 the students experienced lowered engagement as a result.

Two years after the study began, when the students were in Year 8, their secondary school underwent some significant changes in terms of its curriculum delivery (no longer integrated) and the use of technology in the mathematics classrooms. There was significantly less reliance technology and a much heavier emphasis on direct instruction. The students began to build relationships with their teachers and in turn, this saw their engagement in mathematics begin to build. The students spoke about how they now felt their teachers ‘cared’ about them and ‘knew’ them. This comment from one of the students indicates the importance of positive student/teacher relationships: “if you like the teacher, you’ll get maths more. You’ll know what’s going on more.”

Although some of the pedagogies these students experienced during the study were not necessarily considered ‘best practice’, it appears the students were able to overcome this where it was difficult for them to overcome the lack of positive interactions with some of their mathematics teachers. It is proposed that regardless of the school context, students in the middle years have a need for positive teacher-student and student-student relationships as a foundation for engagement in mathematics. This relationship is built on an understanding of students and their learning needs. Unless such a relationship exists, other pedagogical practices including the use of technology may not sustain engagement in mathematics during the middle years.

Attard, C. (2011). “My favourite subject is maths. For some reason no-one really agrees with me”: Student perspectives of mathematics teaching and learning in the upper primary classroom. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 23(3), 363-377.

Attard, C. (2012). The influence of pedagogy on student engagement with mathematics during the middle years of schooling. In A. L. White & U. H. Cheah (Eds.), Transforming School Mathematics Education in the 21st Century (pp. 140-157). Penang: SEAMEO RECSAM.

Association of Mathematics Teachers [AAMT]. (2006). Standards of Excellence in Teaching Mathematics in Australian Schools. Adelaide: Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers.

Nardi, E., & Steward, S. (2003). Is mathematics T.I.R.E.D? A profile of quiet disaffection in the secondary mathematics classroom. British Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 345-367

NSW Department of Education and Training. (2003). Quality Teaching in NSW Public Schools. Sydney: Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.

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