Category Archives: Professional development

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

 

Assessment and Mathematics: Where are we going wrong?

A common reason students disengage from mathematics is related to the amount of and types of assessment tasks we provide. Mathematics is notorious for pen and paper, high stress testing. I wrote this post last year, immediately following the annual NAPLAN testing, and thought it would be a timely reminder about issues relating to assessment and mathematics, and ways we can address them.

Thousands of children in Australian schools have recently sat the national literacy and numeracy test (NAPLAN), and many teachers have been busy administering a whole range of assessments because it’s report writing season and boxes need to be ticked. My question is, how often do we ask ourselves why we’re assessing? What are we doing with the results apart from using them for reporting purposes? I’ve spent quite a bit of time in schools lately, and after talking to lots teachers and seeing a range of mathematics assessment tasks and work samples, I’ve begun to reflect on some of the things we could do better.

“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 the point 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?

I think one way we can address this situation 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!

Setting up Your Students for Mathematical Success : Tips for Teachers

Many children begin the new school year with feelings of fear and anxiety. Will they like their new teacher or teachers? Will the work be difficult? What will the homework be like? As you prepare programming and planning for a new teaching year and new students, give some thought to the strategies and activities you and your students can do in the first few weeks of term to ensure everyone gets the most out of their mathematics lessons for the entire school year. Think about what you can do differently in 2017 to make your work more engaging for both you and your students. The following are some ideas to consider.

  1. Be a positive mathematical role model

I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise, but there are teachers in our schools who actually don’t like maths and don’t like teaching it. Why is this a problem? Student know! This knowledge perpetuates the common misconception that it’s okay to dislike mathematics, and worse still, it’s okay to be considered ‘bad’ at maths.  Unless the teacher is an award-winning actor or actress, it’s really difficult to hide how you feel about a subject – it’s obvious in body language, tone of voice and of course, the way you teach the subject and the resources you use. If you know someone like this, suggest they seek some support from a colleague or colleagues. Often the reason a person dislikes mathematics is related to a lack of confidence.

  1. Get to know your students as learners of mathematics

The foundation of student engagement requires an understanding of students as learners, in other words, the development of positive pedagogical relationships (Attard, 2014). Positive relationships require teachers to understand how their students learn, and where and when they need assistance. It’s also important to provide opportunities for ongoing interactions between you and your students as well as amongst your students.

Another way to get to know your students as learners is to use existing data. For example, if your school takes part in external testing such as PAT, you can use this data as a guide. However, keep in mind that things change quickly when children are young – what they knew or understood three months ago may be very different after a long summer holiday.

A great activity to do in the very first few maths classes of the year is to ask your students to write or create a ‘Maths Autobiography’. If required, provide the students with some sentence starters such as “I think maths is…” “The thing I like best about maths is…” “The thing or things that worry me about maths is…” They could do this in different formats:

  • In a maths journal
  • Making a video
  • Using drawings (great for young children – a drawing can provide lots of information)
  1. Start off on a positive note

Have some fun with your maths lessons. I would strongly recommend that you don’t start the year with a maths test! If you want to do some early assessment, consider using open-ended tasks or some rich mathematical investigations. Often these types of assessments will provide much deeper insights into the abilities of your students. You can even use some maths games (either concrete or digital) to assess the abilities of your students.

A great maths activity for the first lesson of the year is getting-to-know-you-mathematically, where students use a pattern block and then need to go on a hunt to find other students who have specific mathematical attributes. Encourage your students to find someone different for every attribute on the list, and change the list to suit the age and ability of your students. For example, in the younger years you could use illustrations and not words. In the older years, you could make the mathematics more abstract.

  1. Take a fresh look at the curriculum

Even if you’ve been teaching for many years, it’s always good to take a fresh new look at the curriculum at the start of each year. Consider how the Proficiencies or Working Mathematically processes can be the foundation of the content that you’re teaching. For example, how can you make problem solving a central part of your lessons?
Take a close look at the General Capabilities. They provide a perfect foundation for contextual, relevant tasks that allow you to teach mathematics and integrate with other content areas.

  1. Consider the resources you use: Get rid of the worksheets!

Think about using a range of resources in your mathematics teaching. Regardless of their age or ability, children benefit from using concrete manipulatives. Have materials available for students to use when and if they need them. This includes calculators in early primary classrooms, where students can explore patterns in numbers, place value and lots of other powerful concepts using calculators.

Children’s literature is also a great resource. A wonderful book to start off the year is Math Curse by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith. Read the book to your students either in one sitting or bit by bit. There are lots of lesson ideas within the pages. Ask your students to write their own maths curse. It’s a great way to illustrate that mathematics underpins everything we do! It’s also a great way to gain insight into how your students view mathematics and what they understand about mathematics.

  1. How will you use technology in the classroom?

If you don’t already integrate technology into your mathematics lessons, then it’s time to start. Not only is it a curriculum requirement, it is part of students’ everyday lives – we need to make efforts to link students’ lives to what happens in the classroom and one way to do that is by using technology. Whether it’s websites, apps, YouTube videos, screencasting, just make sure that you have a clear purpose for using the technology. What mathematics will your students be learning or practicing, and how will you assess their learning?

  1. Reach out to parents

As challenging as it may be, it’s vital that parents play an active role in your students’ mathematical education. They too may suffer from anxiety around mathematics so it’s helpful to invite them into the classroom or hold mathematics workshops where parents can experience contemporary teaching practices that their students are experiencing at school. Most importantly, you need to communicate to parents that they must try really hard to be positive about mathematics!

These are just a few tips to begin the year with…my next blog post will discuss lesson structure. In the meantime, enjoy the beginning of the school year and:

Be engaged in your teaching.

Engaged teachers = engaged students.

 

 

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.

Australia’s Declining Maths Results: Who’s Responsible?

Once again, mathematics education is in the spotlight. The most recent TIMMS  and PISA results highlight a decline in Australia’s mathematics achievement when compared to other countries, which will no doubt perpetuate the typical knee jerk reactions of panic and blame. So, what are we doing about this decline? Who’s responsible? Typically, the first to get the blame for anything related to a decline in mathematics are teachers, because they work at the coal face, they spend significant amounts of time with students, and they’re an easy target. But shouldn’t we, as a society that considers it acceptable to proudly claim “I’m not good at maths” (Attard, 2013), take some portion of the blame?

Numeracy and Mathematics education is everyone’s business

As a society, we all need to take some responsibility for the decline in mathematics achievement and more importantly, we all need to collaborate on a plan to change the decline into an incline. From my perspective, there are three groups of stakeholders who need to work together: the general community, the policy makers and school systems that influence and implement the policies, and the teachers.

Let’s start with the general community. It seems everybody’s an expert when it comes to mathematics education because we all experienced schooling in some form. Many say: “I survived rote learning – it didn’t hurt me”. The world has changed, access to information and technology has improved dramatically, and the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ practices are no longer appropriate in today’s classrooms. Many hold a limited view of school mathematics as drill and practice of number facts and computation. Although it’s important that children build fluency, it’s simply not enough. We must promote problem solving and critical thinking within relevant contexts – making the purpose of learning mathematics visible to students. It is, after all, problem solving that forms the core of NAPLAN, TIMSS and PISA tests.

The community pressure for teachers to use text books and teach using outdated methods, along with a crowded curriculum and an implied requirement for teachers to ‘tick curriculum boxes’ causes significant tensions for teachers, particularly in the primary school where they are required to be experts at every subject. If we consider the limited number of hours allocated to mathematics education in teacher education degrees compared with the expectations that all primary teachers suddenly become experts on graduation, then we should understand that teachers need continued support beyond their tertiary education to develop their skills. In addition, rather than focusing on students’ learning, the crowded curriculum  leads them to focus on getting through the curriculum (http://v7-5.australiancurriculum.edu.au/mathematics/curriculum/f-10?layout=2#page=1) and this often leads to a ‘back to basics’ approach of text books, work sheets and lots of testing that does not create students who can problem solve, problem pose and problem find.

This is where the policy makers and school systems must come into play by providing support for high quality and sustained professional learning and encouraging primary teachers to gain expertise as specialist mathematics teachers. We already have a strong curriculum that promotes problem solving and critical thinking both through the Proficiencies and through the General Capabilities. The General Capabilities provide teachers with the opportunity to embed mathematics in contextual, relevant and purposeful mathematics. However, teachers need to be supported by all stakeholders, the community and the policy makers, to use these tools and focus less on the teaching of mathematics as a series of isolated topics that make little sense to students.

What can we do?

There are no easy solutions, but one thing is clear. We need to disrupt the stereotypical perceptions of what school mathematics is and how it should be taught. We need to support our teachers and work with them rather than against them. Let’s band together and make some changes that will ultimately benefit the most important stakeholders of all, the children of Australia.

 

 

Attard, C. (2013). “If I had to pick any subject, it wouldn’t be maths”: Foundations for engagement with mathematics during the middle years. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 25(4), 569-587.

 

Assessment and Mathematics: Where are we going wrong?

Thousands of children in Australian schools have recently sat the national literacy and numeracy test (NAPLAN), and many teachers have been busy administering a whole range of assessments because it’s report writing season and boxes need to be ticked. My question is, how often do we ask ourselves why we’re assessing? What are we doing with the results apart from using them for reporting purposes? I’ve spent quite a bit of time in schools lately, and after talking to lots teachers and seeing a range of mathematics assessment tasks and work samples, I’ve begun to reflect on some of the things we could do better.

“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 the point 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?

I think one way we can address this situation 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.

 

Primary Mathematics: Engaged Teachers = Engaged Students

“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).

A few months ago I published a post about the issue of teacher engagement and mathematics. The following is an updated version of that post. The issue of student engagement with mathematics is a constant topic of discussion and concern within and beyond the classroom and the school, yet how much attention is given to the engagement of teachers? I am a firm believer that one of the foundational requirements for engaging our students with mathematics is a teacher who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, confident, and passionate about mathematics teaching and learning – that is, a teacher who is engaged with mathematics. Research has proven that the biggest influence on student engagement with mathematics is the teacher, and the pedagogical relationships and practices that are developed and implemented in day to day teaching (Attard, 2013).

A regular challenge for me as a pre-service and in-service teacher educator is to re-engage teachers who have ‘switched off’ mathematics, or worse still, never had a passion for teaching mathematics to begin with. Now, more than ever, we need teachers who are highly competent in teaching primary mathematics and numeracy. The release of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TMAG) (2014) report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, included a recommendation that pre-service primary teachers graduate with a subject specialisation prioritising science, mathematics, or a language (Recommendation 18). In the government’s response (Australian Government: Department of Education and Training, 2015), they agree “greater emphasis must be given to core subjects of literacy and numeracy” and will be instructing AITSL to “require universities to make sure that every new primary teacher graduates with a subject specialisation” (p.8). While this is very welcome news, we need to keep in mind that we have a substantial existing teaching workforce, many of whom should consider becoming subject specialists. It is now time for providers of professional development, including tertiary institutions, to provide more opportunities for all teachers, regardless of experience, to improve their knowledge and skills in mathematics teaching and learning, and re-engage with the subject.

So what professional learning can practicing teachers access in order to become ‘specialists’, and what models of professional learning/development are the most effective? Literature on professional learning (PL) describes two common models: the traditional type of activities that involve workshops, seminars and conferences, and reform type activities that incorporate study groups, networking, mentoring and meetings that occur in-situ during the process of classroom instruction or planning time (Lee, 2007). Although it is suggested that the reform types of PL are more likely to make connections to classroom teaching and may be easier to sustain over time, Lee (2007) argues there is a place for traditional PL or a combination of both, which may work well for teachers at various stages in their careers. An integrated approach to PD is supported by the NSW Institute of Teachers (2012).

Many teachers I meet are considering further study but lack the confidence to attempt a Masters degree or PhD. I am currently teaching a new, cutting edge course at Western Sydney University, the Graduate Certificate of Primary Mathematics Education, aimed at producing specialist primary mathematics educators – a graduate certificate is definitely less intimidating than a Masters, and can be used as credit towards a higher degree. The fully online course is available to pre-service and in-service teachers. Graduates of the course develop deep mathematics pedagogical content knowledge, a strong understanding of the importance of research-based enquiry to inform teaching and skills in mentoring and coaching other teachers of mathematics.

In addition to continuing formal studies, I would encourage teachers to join a professional association. In New South Wales, the Mathematical Association of NSW (MANSW) (http://www.mansw.nsw.edu.au) provides many opportunities for the more traditional types of professional learning, casual TeachMeets, as well as networking through the many conferences offered. An additional source of PL provided by professional associations are their journals, which usually offer high quality, research-based teaching ideas. The national association, Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) has a free, high quality resource, Top Drawer Teachers (http://topdrawer.aamt.edu.au), that all teachers have access to, regardless of whether you are a member of the organisation or not. Many more informal avenues for professional learning are also available through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as blogs such as this (engagingmaths.co).

Given that teachers have so much influence on the engagement of students, it makes sense to assume that when teachers themselves are disengaged and lack confidence or the appropriate pedagogical content knowledge for teaching mathematics, the likelihood of students becoming and remaining engaged is significantly decreased, in turn effecting academic achievement. The opportunities that are now emerging for pre-service and in-service teachers to increase their skills and become specialist mathematics teachers is an important and timely development in teacher education and will hopefully result in improved student engagement and academic achievement.

References:

Attard, C. (2013). “If I had to pick any subject, it wouldn’t be maths”: Foundations for engagement with mathematics during the middle years. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 25(4), 569-587.

Australian Government: Department of Education and Training (2015). Teacher education ministerial advisory group. Action now: Classroom ready teachers. Australian Government Response.

Lee, H. (2007). Developing an effective professional development model to enhance teachers’ conceptual understanding and pedagogical strategies in mathematics. Journal of Educational Thought, 41(2), 125.

NSW Institute of Teachers. (2012). Continuing professional development policy – supporting the maintenance of accreditation at proficient teacher/professional competence. . Retrieved from file:///Users/Downloads/Continuing%20Professional%20Development%20Policy.pdf.

Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (2014). Action now: Classroom ready Teachers.

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