Mathematics and the transition from primary to secondary schooling

As the end of the year looms, many students are preparing to transition from primary to secondary school. Most children look forward to going to high school and adjust quickly to the transition, expressing a preference for secondary school above primary school (Akos & Galassi, 2004; Howard & Johnson, 2004). Unfortunately, despite these initial positive sentiments, as their first year of high school progresses many students begin to develop negative attitudes towards secondary schooling (Ashton, 2008; Bicknell, 2009), and often, towards mathematics.

Students about to transition from primary to secondary schooling often have pre-conceived ideas and high expectations of the academic challenges presented by secondary schools. Often students’ perceptions of what is involved at secondary school are distorted and are promoted by parents, older siblings and often primary school teachers. Despite their best intentions, parents and primary teachers are generally unfamiliar with the secondary school environment and curriculum and attempts to prepare primary students for secondary schooling may result in preparing them for an environment that does not exist (Akos & Galassi, 2004). This is particularly relevant to the study of mathematics, where students are often prepared for work they perceive to be ‘much harder’ than primary school mathematics (Howard & Johnson, 2004).

In an Australian study of students’ perceptions of the transition to secondary school, students found the academic work during their first year of secondary school was no harder, or was easier than their final primary year, yet they still had difficulty adjusting to the academic environment of the secondary school (Kirkpatrick, 1992). Although there may be a lack of challenge, the transition to secondary school often results in some level of achievement loss (Athanasiou & Philippou, 2009; Bicknell, 2009). This is sometimes due to secondary students being focused on performance rather than being task-orientated in order to improve competencies (Alspaugh, 1998; Zanobini & Usai, 2002). Academic challenge seems to be an ongoing and contentious issue in the middle years of schooling.

Difficult transitions to high school can lead to disengagement, negative attitudes towards school, reduced self-confidence, and reduced levels of motivation, particularly in the area of mathematics education (Athanasiou & Philippou, 2009). Some of the transition difficulties that impact negatively on students are the disruptions within friendship networks, reducing relatedness to school and classroom, the different structure of the secondary school (larger number of teachers), and a more competitive and norm-referenced environment, resulting in lower engagement. A study of motivation and engagement levels of 1019 Australian primary and secondary school teachers conducted by Martin (2006) found that, reflecting the teachers’ levels of motivation and engagement, the primary school students’ motivation and engagement levels were rated higher than that of high school students. Martin’s study found that some of the transition difficulties that impact negatively on students’ motivation and engagement are:

  • disruptions within friendship networks reduces relatedness to school and classroom;
  • some students experience difficulty adapting to a larger environment, reducing the feeling of community;
  • the structure of some high schools involves students having a significantly larger number of teachers, resulting in difficulty establishing supportive relationships;
  • more authority-based teacher-student relationships within the high school result in less intrinsic motivation; and
  • a more competitive and norm-referenced environment in high school often results in lower engagement levels.

Such transition issues are not limited to students in Australian schools. McGee et al., (2003) found substantial agreement in international literature that an effect of transition is often a decline in achievement. Eccles and Wigfield (1993) attribute the decline in students’ attitudes and performance in subjects such as mathematics to changes in students’ concepts of themselves as learners as they get older. In contrast to this belief, Whitley et al., (2007) claim secondary teachers often have higher expectations of students when compared to primary school teachers, thus explaining the decline in achievement as a mismatch between teacher expectations and students’ abilities. Related to high expectations of students, one of the issues facing secondary teachers is how much they want to know about their students coming from primary school. Some teachers favour a ‘fresh start’ approach as they are often faced with students from a variety of schools, perhaps to the detriment of some students. Research has found this to be particularly the case with mathematics, causing a lack of continuity across the curriculum (Bicknell, 2009).

Another long-term issue of transition identified by McGee et al., (2003), is curriculum continuity and coherence across primary and secondary schools. It was found there are gaps in subject content, differences in teaching and learning practices and inconsistencies in the expectations of students. Current curriculum documents aim to address this and minimise gaps in curriculum by presenting content as a continuum across the grades, with all teachers having access to the content requirements for learners at all stages (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2010).

Lowered achievement levels could also be explained by the use of more formal, competitive assessment practices that students experience in secondary school. A move away from intrinsic methods of assessment towards a more impersonal, more evaluative, more formal and more competitive environment is another significant factor effecting transition to secondary school.

So what can teachers and schools do to ensure students maintain their engagement with mathematics and with school as they enter secondary education? Here are some suggestions:

  • Build transition programs that promote collaboration between primary and secondary schools
  • Invite secondary mathematics teachers to visit and observe (and perhaps teach) primary mathematics lessons and vice versa
  • Hold joint parent and student information sessions that explain pedagogy and the mathematics curriculum expectations
  • Attend professional learning aimed at middle years mathematics pedagogy and content
  • Be familiar with mathematics curriculum requirements at both primary and secondary levels.

References:

Akos, P., & Galassi, J. P. (2004). Middle and high school transitions as viewed by students, parents, and teachers. ASCA Professional School Counseling, 7(4), 212-221.

Alspaugh, J. W. (1998). Achievement loss associated with the transition to middle school and high school. The Journal of Educational Research, 92(1), 20-23.

Ashton, R. (2008). Improving the transfer to secondary school: How every child’s voice can matter. Support for Learning, 23(4), 176-182.

Athanasiou, C., & Philippou, G. N. (2009). Students’ views of their motivation in mathematics across the transition from primary to secondary school. Paper presented at the 33rd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education., Thessaloniki, Greece.

Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (2010). The Australian curriculum: Mathematics Retrieved 8th August, 2010, from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Mathematics/Curriculum/F-10

Bicknell, B. (2009). Continuity in mathematics learning across a school transfer. Paper presented at the 33rd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Thessaloniki, Greece.

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (1993). Negative effects of traditional middle schools on student motivation. . Elementary School Journal, 93(5), 553-574.

Howard, S., & Johnson, B. (2004, 28 November – 2 December). Transition from primary to secondary school: Possibilities and paradoxes. Paper presented at the Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Melbourne.

Kirkpatrick, D. (1992, November). Students’ perceptions of the transition from primary to secondary school. Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education/New Zealand Association for Educational Research joint conference, Deakin University, Geelong. http://www.aare.edu.au/92pap/kirkd92003.txt

Martin, A. J. (2006). The relationship between teachers’ perceptions of student motivation and engagement and teachers’ enjoyment of and confidence in teaching. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 34(1), 73-93.

McGee, C., Ward, R., Gibbons, J., & Harlow, A. (2003). Transition to secondary school: A literature review. Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

Whitley, J., Lupart, J. L., & Beran, T. (2007). Differences in achievement between adolescents who remain in a K-8 school and those who transition to a junior high school. Canadian Journal of Education, 30(3), 649-669.

Zanobini, M., & Usai, M. C. (2002). Domain-specific self-concept and achievement motivation in the transition from primary to low middle school. Educational Psychology, 22(2), 203-217.

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