Category Archives: Mathematics lessons

Are you an engaged teacher?

“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds” (Teller, 2016).

Teller (2016), makes a powerful point about teaching and engagement, and how important it is that we, as teachers, portray positive attitudes towards our subject and towards teaching it. Do you consider yourself an engaged teacher? Are your students deeply engaged with mathematics, and how do you know? In education we talk about student engagement every day, but what do we actually mean when we use the term ‘engagement’? When does real engagement occur, and how do we, as teachers, influence that engagement? In this post, I will define the construct of engagement and pose some questions that will prompt you to reflect on how your teaching practices and the way you interpret the curriculum, influences your own engagement with the teaching of mathematics and, as a result, the engagement of your students.

Student Engagement: On Task vs. In Task

In education, engagement is a term used to describe students’ levels of involvement with teaching and learning. Engagement can be defined as a multidimensional construct, consisting of operative, cognitive, and affective domains. Operative engagement encompasses the idea of active participation and involvement in academic and social activities, and is considered crucial for the achievement of positive academic outcomes. Affective engagement includes students’ reactions to school, teachers, peers and academics, influencing willingness to become involved in school work. Cognitive engagement involves the idea of investment, recognition of the value of learning and a willingness to go beyond the minimum requirements

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that students are engaged when they appear to be busy working and are on task.  True engagement is much deeper – it is ‘in task’ behaviour, where all three dimensions of engagement; cognitive, operative, and affective, come together (see figure 1).  This leads to students valuing and enjoying school mathematics and seeing connections between the mathematics they do at school and the mathematics they use in their lives outside school. Put simply, engagement occurs when students are thinking hard, working hard, and feeling good about learning mathematics.

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There are a range of influences on student engagement. Family, peers, and societal stereotypes have some degree of influence. Curriculum and school culture also play a role. Arguably, it is teachers who have a powerful influence on students’ engagement with mathematics (Anthony & Walshaw, 2009; Hattie, 2003). Classroom pedagogy, the actions involved in teaching, is one aspect of a broader perspective of the knowledge a teacher requires in order to be effective. The knowledge of what to teach, how to teach it and how students learn is referred to as pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). The construct of PCK was originally introduced by Schulman (1986), and substantial research building on this work has seen a strong focus on PCK in terms of mathematics teaching and learning (Delaney, Ball, Hill, Schilling, & Zopf, 2008; Hill, Ball, & Schilling, 2008; Neubrand, Seago, Agudelo-Valderrama, DeBlois, & Leikin, 2009). Although this research provides insight into the complex knowledge required to effectively teach mathematics, little attention is paid to how teachers themselves are engaged with teachers.

Engaged Teachers = Engaged Students

It makes sense that teachers need to be engaged with the act of teaching in order to effectively engage their students. If we take the definition of student engagement and translate it to a teaching perspective, perhaps it would look something like Figure 2, where teachers are fully invested in teaching mathematics, work collaboratively with colleagues to design meaningful and relevant tasks, go beyond the minimum requirements of delivering curriculum, and genuinely enjoy teaching mathematics in a way that makes a difference to students. In other words, thinking hard, working hard, and feeling good about teaching mathematics.

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Are you an engaged teacher?

Teaching is a complex practice with many challenges. Teaching mathematics has the additional challenge of breaking down many stereotypical beliefs about mathematics as being difficult and only for ‘smart’ people, mathematics viewed as black and white/right or wrong, and mathematics as a simply focused on arithmetic, to name a few. However, there are elements of our day to day work that we can actively engage with to disrupt those stereotypes, make teaching more enjoyable, and promote deeper student engagement. The following section provides some thoughts and questions for reflection.

Curriculum

How do you interpret the curriculum? Do you view it has a series of isolated topics to be taught/learned in a particular order, or do you see it has a collection of big ideas with conceptual relationships within and amongst the strands? How do you incorporate the General Capabilities and Cross-curriculum priorities in your teaching? Do you make the Working Mathematically components a central part of your teaching?

Planning

How do you plan for the teaching of mathematics? Does your school have a scope and sequence document that allows you to cater to emerging student needs? Does the scope and sequence document acknowledge the big ideas of mathematics or does it unintentionally steer teachers into treating topics/concepts in isolation?

Assessment

How often do you assess? Are you students suffering from assessment fatigue and anxiety? Do you offer a range of assessment tasks beyond the traditional pen and paper test? Do your questions/tasks provide opportunities for students to apply the Working Mathematically components?

Tasks

What gets you excited about teaching mathematics? Do you implement the types of tasks that you would get you engaged as a mathematician? Do your tasks have relevance and purpose?  Do you include variety and choice within your task design? Do you take into account the interests of your students when you plan tasks? Do you incorporate student reflection into your tasks?

Grouping

How do you group your students? There are many arguments that support mixed ability grouping, yet there are also times when ability grouping is required. Is the way you group your students giving them unintended messages about ability and limiting their potential?

Technology

How do you use digital technology to enhance teaching and learning in your classroom? Do you take advantage of emerging technologies and applications? Do you use digital technology in ways that require students to create rather than simply consume?

Professional Learning

How do you incorporate professional learning into your role as an educator? Do you actively pursue professional learning opportunities, and do you apply what you have learned to your practice? Do you share what you have learned with your colleagues, promoting a community of practice within your teaching context?

There are many other aspects of teaching mathematics that influence our engagement as teachers, and of course, the engagement of our students. Many factors, such as other non-academic school-related responsibilities, are bound to have some influence over our engagement with teaching. However, every now and then it is useful to stop and reflect on how our levels of engagement, our enthusiasm and passion for the teaching of mathematics, can make a difference to the engagement, and ultimately the academic outcomes, of our students.

References:

Anthony, G., & Walshaw, M. (2009). Effective pedagogy in mathematics (Vol. 19). Belley, France.

Attard, C. (2014). “I don’t like it, I don’t love it, but I do it and I don’t mind”: Introducing a framework for engagement with mathematics. Curriculum Perspectives, 34(3), 1-14.

Delaney, S., Ball, D. L., Hill, H. C., Schilling, S. G., & Zopf, D. (2008). “Mathematical knowledge for teaching”: Adapting U.S. measures for use in Ireland. Journal for Mathematics Teacher Education, 11(3), 171-197.

Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality: The ACER Annual Conference, Melbourne, Australia.

Hill, H. C., Ball, D. L., & Schilling, S. G. (2008). Unpacking pedagogical content knowledge: Conceptualising and measuring teachers’ topic-specific knowledge of students. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 39(4), 372-400.

Neubrand, M., Seago, N., Agudelo-Valderrama, C., DeBlois, L., & Leikin, R. (2009). The balance of teacher knowledge: Mathematics and pedagogy. In T. Wood (Ed.), The professional education and development of teachers of mathematics: The 15th ICMI study (pp. 211-225). New York: Springer.

Teller, R.  (2016) Teaching: Just like performing magic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/what-classrooms-can-learn-from-magic/425100/?utm_source=SFTwitter

 

When a Maths Curse is a Good Curse!

In one of my previous posts I wrote about the use of children’s literature to encourage rich mathematical investigations and improve student engagement with mathematics. One of my favourite books, Math Curse by John Szieska and Lane Smith, is described in the blog post as a great way to engage reluctant learners. Even better, Math Curse encourages children (and their teachers) to see the mathematics that is embedded in every aspect of our lives. In this post I am going to share some student work from a Grade 3 classroom. In this classroom, the teacher read the book to the students before challenging them create their own class maths curse. The children took their own photographs, and working in small groups, they came up with a range of mathematical problems and investigations, which they then gave to other groups to solve.

Here are some of the photos with their accompanying questions:

Beyblades:

  1. If one of the beyblades spins for 2 minutes and 31 seconds and the other one spins for 1 minute and 39 seconds what is the difference between the two times?
  2. If one of the beyblades spins for 1 minute and 1 second and another spins for 78 seconds, which beyblade spun for the longest and by how long?

Hair:

  1. If there are 31 people in the class (10 boys and 21 girls) and all of them have hair that is 30cm long. Half of the boys cut 10cm off their hair, the other half cut 20cm off their hair. How long is the classes hair now altogether? How long was it before? How much hair has been cut altogether?
  2. Check your friend’s hair. Estimate how long it is when it is out, how long it is when it is in a ponytail, and how long it is when it is in a braid. List some different ways you could check if your estimate is accurate? What are the potential problems with your methods?
  3. I’m 9 years old. I had really long hair for 6 years, then I cut it. How long did I have short hair for?
  4. I have 5 friends that are girls and 2 friends that are boys. All 5 girls have hair length of 50cm. The boys both have different lengths of hair. The 1st boy has 30cm of hair, the second has 25cm of hair. What is the difference between the 1st boy and the girls and the 2nd boy and the girls?

Birthday Balloons:

  1. Write down the dates of important celebrations. If you add all the dates together, what is the value of their numbers?
  2. How many days are there in 6 years?
  3. If everyone’s birthday occurred every three years (starting the year you are born) what years would your birthday fall on?
  4. If Lisa and Jane went on a holiday every 2 months, how many holidays could they take in a year?
  5. If you could rearrange the seasons, what months would you choose to be Spring? Why?
  6. What is the most popular letter in the days of the months?
  7. Why do you think there are 4 seasons in a year?

From Problem Solving to Problem Posing

What is the purpose of getting students to write mathematical problems? First of all, the problems give us good insight into whether students recognise mathematical situations, and whether they understand where, how, and what mathematics is applied in day to day situations. An added bonus is that the students are highly engaged because they have ownership of the mathematics they are generating, the topics they choose are of interest to them, and stereotypical perceptions of school mathematics are disrupted.

Student Reflection

The students who wrote the examples above completed a structured written reflection following the sequence of designing and solving each others’ maths curses. Here are some of reflection prompts and a sample of responses:

What did you enjoy about today’s learning?

“working with my team”
“working at the problems for a long time and then finally getting them after a long, hard discussion”

“solving questions that my friends wrote”

“I felt challenged and I learnt more about what maths is”

“working with my group, choosing our own questions and learning something new”

“I liked the chess card the best because we had to solve it together and use problem solving”

“having a go at tricky questions even if i got them wrong”

Did you learn anything new?

“how to work things out in different ways”

“working in groups helps you learn more skills”

“not every question uses just one skill like addition, division, multiplication or subtraction”

“when I am challenged I learn more”

“Maths is not always easy”

“how to work together”

“Everyone in the group has different responses so we needed proof to figure out the right one”

What surprised you about this task?

“It surprised me how hard my own questions were”

“I didn’t know that we could come up with so many interesting questions”
“I got a shock! We had to research to solve some problems, Adam even taught me how to add a different way”

“I got some questions wrong “

“It was hard but if we put our brains into gear we could figure it out”

“I was able to play while doing maths” 

Using activities such as this provides multiple benefits for students. Contextualising the mathematics using students’ interests highlights the relevance of the curriculum, improves student engagement, and makes mathematics meaningful, fun and engaging!

Fifty Shades of Grading: Assessment & Primary Mathematics

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about assessment practices and primary mathematics. Some time ago I wrote a post about assessment, and I’m updating it here because I continue to have concerns about why, how, when and what we are assessing in our primary mathematics classrooms.

“Effective pedagogy requires effective assessment, assessment that provides the critical links between what is valued as learning, ways of learning, ways of identifying need and improvement, and perhaps most significantly, ways of bridging school and other communities of practice” (Wyatt-Smith, Cumming, Elkins, & Colbert, 2010, p. 320)

It’s through our assessment we communicate most clearly to students those learning outcomes we value, yet it’s often held that no subject is as associated with its form of assessment as is mathematics (Clarke, 2003). Assessment practices in mathematics often consist of formal methods such as tests and examinations (Wiliam, 2007), and it’s believed that such strategies need as much consideration for renewal as does content and classroom pedagogy. Although lots of progress has been made in terms of improving mathematics teaching and learning and curriculum, many such improvements have failed due to a mismatch between assessment practices and pedagogy (Bernstein, 1996; Pegg, 2003). It’s been suggested that in mathematics, there should not be more assessment, but more appropriate assessment strategies implemented to inform learning and teaching as well as report on progress and achievement (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, 2008; Clarke, 2003). And this is one of the points I want to highlight – assessment to inform teaching. Regardless of the type of assessments we use, are we using assessment data in the right way?

What do you do with your assessment work samples? Do you simply use the scores to determine how students are grouped, or what aspects of a topic you need to cover? How often do we, as teachers, take the time to analyse the work samples in order to identify specific misconceptions? Imagine a scenario where students are grouped according to assessment scores. Each of those groups are then exposed to pedagogies intended to address the ‘level’ of the group. What if, within each group, there were a range of misconceptions? And what about the top groups? What if work samples that resulted in accurate answers exposed misconceptions despite being correct?

When students transition from one level of schooling to another, it’s not uncommon to hear teachers complaining about the broad range of abilities, and more specifically, those students who appear not to have achieved the most basic skills. How have these students managed to get to kindergarten/Year 3/Year 6/high school/university without knowing how to……? Mathematics content is hierarchical – when students miss out on learning concepts in the early years, the gaps in knowledge continue to widen as they progress through school. Whether caused by inattention, absence from school, or any other reason, students find it hard to catch up when they’re missing pieces of the mathematical jigsaw puzzle. It’s like building a house on faulty foundations.

So how can we fix this? A teacher recently told me that she didn’t have time to analyse the responses in an assessment task. Isn’t this our job? How can we manage workloads so that teachers have the time to really think about where students are going wrong, and how can teachers access professional learning to assist them in being able to identify and address students’ misconceptions?

Another concern is related to the quality of assessment tasks. I have seen many tasks that are poorly worded or poorly set out, or have diagrams that can only lead to confusion or misconceptions. Often tasks test mathematical content but do not provide opportunities for students to express their reasoning. A student can achieve a correct answer while maintaining a misconception – if we don’t ask them about their thinking, are we really assessing their true ability?

I think one way we can address these issues is to think carefully about the design and the quantity of assessment tasks. Administer fewer, better quality tasks that are designed to assess both the content and the processes of mathematics. That is, tasks that require students to show their working, explain their thinking, and produce an answer. The more they show, the more we see. Another strategy to assist teachers is to provide time for teachers to look at assessment samples and analyse them collaboratively, discussing the identified misconceptions and planning strategically to address them.

The knowledge that teachers need to effectively teach mathematics is special. We need to know more about mathematics than the average person – we need to understand where, why and when our students are likely to go wrong, so we can either avoid misconceptions occurring, or address them when they do. This specialist knowledge comes from continued professional learning and collaboration with peers. Don’t just rely on the curriculum documents – we need to look beyond this to ensure we have that specialist knowledge.

This post posed more questions than answers in relation to assessment in the mathematics classroom. Hopefully it will spark some conversation and thinking about what we are doing with the assessment work samples we gather, regardless of why type of assessments they are. If we don’t try and change the way we use assessment, we’ll always have those students who will struggle with mathematics, and while there will always be a range of achievement levels in every group of students, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to close those gaps!

References:

Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers. (2008). The practice of assessing mathematics learning. Adelaide, SA: AAMT Inc.

Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. London: Taylor and Francis.

Clarke, D. (2003, 4-5 December). Challenging and engaging students in worthwhile mathematics in the middle years. Paper presented at the Mathematics Association of Victoria Annual Conference: Making Mathematicians, Melbourne.

Pegg, J. (2003). Assessment in mathematics. In J. M. Royer (Ed.), Mathematical cognition (pp. 227-260). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Wiliam, D. (2007). Keeping learning on track: Classroom assessment and the regulation of learning. In F. K. J. Lester (Ed.), Second handbook of mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 1053-1098). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Wyatt-Smith, C. M., Cumming, J., Elkins, J., & Colbert, P. (2010). Redesigning assessment. In D. Pendergast & N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (2nd ed., pp. 319-379). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

A recipe for success: Critical ingredients for a successful mathematics lesson

What are the ingredients for a good mathematics lesson? Teachers are continually faced with a range of advice or ideas to improve their mathematics lessons. It’s a little bit like recipes. New cookbooks appear on bookstore shelves, but often they’re just adaptations of recipes that have been around before, and their foundation ingredients are tried and tested, and often evidence based. There are always the staple ingredients and methods that are required for the meal to be successful.

The following is a list of what I consider to be important ingredients when planning and teaching a successful mathematics lesson. The list (or recipe) is split into two: lesson planning and lesson structure.

Lesson planning:

  • Be clear about your goal. What exactly do you want your students to learn in this lesson? How are you going to integrate mathematical content with mathematical processes? (The proficiencies or Working Mathematically components)
  • Know the mathematics. If you don’t have a deep understanding of the mathematics or how students learn that aspect of mathematics, how can you teach it effectively? Where does the mathematics link across the various strands within the mathematics curriculum?
  • Choose good resources. Whether they are digital or concrete materials, make sure they are the right ones for the job. Are they going to enhance students’ learning, or will they cause confusion? Be very critical about the resources you use, and don’t use them just because you have them available to you!
  • Select appropriate and purposeful tasks. Is it better to have one or two rich tasks or problems, or pages of worksheets that involve lots of repetition? Hopefully you’ve selected the first option – it is better to have fewer, high quality tasks rather than the traditional worksheet or text book page. You also need to select tasks that are going to promote lots of thinking and discussion.
  • Less is more. We often overestimate what students will be able to do in the length one lesson. We need to make sure students have time to think, so don’t cram in too many activities.
  • You don’t have to start and finish a task in one lesson. Don’t feel that every lesson needs to be self-contained. Children (and adults) often need time to work on complex problems and tasks – asking students to begin and end a task within a short period of time often doesn’t give them time to become deeply engaged in the mathematics. Mathematics is not a race!

Lesson Structure:

  • Begin with a hook. How are you going to engage your students to ensure their brains are switched on and ready to think mathematically from the start of each lesson? There are lots of ways to get students hooked into the lesson, and it’s a good idea to change the type of hook you use to avoid boredom. Things like mathematically interesting photographs, YouTube clips, problems, newspaper articles or even a strategy such as number busting are all good strategies.
  • Introduction: Make links to prior learning. Ensure you make some links to mathematics content or processes from prior learning – this will make the lesson more meaningful for students and will reassure anxious students. Use this time to find out what students recall about the particular topic – avoid being the focus of attention and share the lesson with students. Talk about why the topic of the lesson is important – where else does it link within the curriculum, and beyond, into real life?
  • Make your intentions clear. Let students know what they’re doing why they’re doing it. How and where is knowing this mathematics going to help them?
  • Body: This is a good time for some collaboration, problem solving and mathematical investigation. It’s a time to get students to apply what they know, and make links to prior learning and across the mathematics curriculum. This is also a time to be providing differentiation to ensure all student needs are addressed.
  • Closure: This is probably the most important time in any mathematics lesson. You must always include reflection. This provides an opportunity for students to think deeply about what they have learned, to make connections, and to pose questions. It’s also a powerful way for you, the teacher, to collect important evidence of learning. Reflection can be individual, in groups, and can be oral or written. It doesn’t matter, as long as it happens every single lesson.

There are many variables to the ingredients for a good mathematics lesson, but most importantly, know what you are teaching, provide opportunities for all students to achieve success, and be enthusiastic and passionate about mathematics!