Category Archives: teachers

Beyond Monday’s Maths Class: Making the Most of Teacher PD

Last weekend I travelled interstate to attend a professional development day for teachers of mathematics. It was a good day, with lots of ideas shared and great enthusiasm from the 500+ audience. The presenter was well informed and, in fact, created quite a lot of hype due to her international reputation. Everyone went home happy and the word on Twitter was that Monday’s maths lessons were going to be different. Fantastic! But what about Tuesday’s lesson, and what about next week’s, next month’s, and next year’s lessons? What about the lessons of other teachers in the school?

How do you make the most of professional development?

Too often teachers attend PD sessions, get enthusiastic, try a few new things, but quickly get bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of life in a busy school and the demands of administration and curriculum authorities. How can you translate the underlying philosophy being promoted in the professional development sessions into sustainable change that can be shared amongst colleagues to improve and transform mathematics teaching and learning?

PD is expensive, and it’s important that opportunities aren’t wasted. I’ve been talking and writing a lot recently about promoting critical thinking in the mathematics classroom. It’s equally as important for teachers to engage critically with professional development. The following list contains a few thoughts that might help teachers get the most out of PD opportunities.

  1. Choose the right PD

Do a little research on the person presenting the PD. What are their credentials? Are they a self-proclaimed expert or do they have an established reputation? A simple Google search should reveal some insights, and, if the presenter is an academic, you could search Google Scholar for some of their academic publications. Spending time researching the presenter’s background can save you from attending a PD session that may not be right for you, and can provide some good research background should you choose to go ahead with the session. You also need to consider what you want out of a PD session. If you want a ‘bag of tricks’ in the form of a handful of ready to go activities, then you probably shouldn’t be wasting your school’s money. Rather, think about PD that is going to cause you to think deeply about your practice, and have a long-term effect on students’ educational outcomes.

  1. Does the presenter understand the Australian school context and curriculum?

When you attend PD, you expect that the presenter is aware of the Australian school context, and more importantly, the Australian Curriculum. This assists you, the teacher, in applying the learning to your practice, and also makes the content of the PD more relevant to you and your students.

  1. Understand the structure of the PD session

Before you commit to attending a PD session, ensure you understand what is going to happen in that session. Nobody likes sitting down and being lectured to for hours on end, nor do you want to listen to a presenter talk about themselves for an entire day! Look for presentations that are interactive and allow participants to apply theory to practical activities. If we are going to ask our students to do something differently, we need to experience it ourselves first. It’s also a better way of retaining information.

  1. Active Participation

When you’re at the PD session, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s also important to think critically about the information you are receiving. Presenters are usually very happy to answer questions that spark discussion – this often results in deeper learning, and better value for your school’s money! If the presenter doesn’t welcome questions, this is a sign that they may not have expert knowledge.  During the PD session it’s important that you participate in any activities – there’s usually a good reason a presenter has asked you to engage in a task. Active participation gives insight into the student experience and possible challenges, and it’s a great way to make links between theory and practice.

  1. Use the session as a networking opportunity

Often one of the most valuable aspects of professional development sessions is the opportunity to connect with teachers from other schools. It’s a great opportunity to discuss practice, students and school procedures. Networks developed at PD sessions can be maintained easily using tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

  1. Reflection

Before you leave your PD session, pause and consider what you have learned (a good presenter will actually give you opportunity to reflect). Think about how you might apply what you have learned (not just the activities, but the educational philosophy underpinning them) to your classroom, and don’t limit yourself to just replicating the activities. What are the underlying messages? How can you use those messages to adapt your practice? What will be different in the way that you plan and implement lessons? It doesn’t have to be a big change. Often subtle differences have huge effects.

  1. Sustainability: Sharing the Learning

Finally, it’s important to share the learning. It’s difficult to sustain any kind of change that will have ongoing benefit for students if it’s not supported by others in your school. This may not be easy, but small changes are better than no changes. Sometimes it’s a good idea to try out new things in your own class first, then use evidence of your success to convince others.

When it comes to PD, one of the most important things to remember is the reason we do what we do. We want our students to be the best they can, and when it comes to mathematics, we want to give them confidence, skill, passion and excitement that will ensure they continue to study and use mathematics beyond their school education.

Promoting Student Reflection to Improve Mathematics Learning

Critical reflection is a skill that doesn’t come naturally for many students, yet it is one of the most important elements of the learning process. As teachers, not only should we practice what we preach by engaging in critical reflection of our practice, we also need to be modelling critical reflection skills to our students so they know what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like (in fact, a Y chart is a great reflection tool).

How often do you provide opportunities for your students to engage in deep reflection of their learning? Consider Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset. If we want to convince our students that our brains have the capability of growing from making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, then critical reflection must be part of the learning process and must be included in every mathematics lesson.

What does reflection look like within a mathematics lesson, and when should it happen?Reflection can take many forms, and is often dependent on the age and abilities of your students. For example, young students may not be able to write fluently, so verbal reflection is more appropriate and can save time. Verbal reflections, regardless of the age of the student, can be captured on video and used as evidence of learning. Video reflections can also be used to demonstrate learning during parent/teacher conferences. Another reflection strategy for young students could be through the use of drawings. Older students could keep a mathematics journal, which is a great way of promoting non-threatening, teacher and student dialogue. Reflection can also occur amongst pairs or small groups of students.

How do you promote quality reflection? The use of reflection prompts is important. This has two benefits: first, they focus students’ thinking and encourage depth of reflection; and second, they provide information about student misconceptions that can be used to determine the content of the following lessons. Sometimes teachers fall into the trap of having a set of generic reflection prompts. For example, prompts such as “What did you learn today?”, “What was challenging?” and “What did you do well?” do have some value, however if they are over-used, students will tend to provide generic responses. Consider asking prompts that relate directly to the task or mathematical content.

An example of powerful reflection prompts is the REAL Framework, from Munns and Woodward (2006). Although not specifically written for mathematics, these reflection prompts can be adapted. One great benefit of the prompts is that they fit into the three dimensions of engagement: operative, affective, and cognitive. The following table represents reflection prompts from one of four dimensions identified by Munns and Woodward: conceptual, relational, multidimensional and unidimensional.

Picture1(Munns & Woodward, 2006)

Finally, student reflection can be used to promote and assess the proficiencies (Working Mathematically in NSW) from the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics as well as mathematical concepts. It can be an opportunity for students to communicate mathematically, use reasoning, and show evidence of understanding. It can also help students make generalisations and consider how the mathematics can be applied elsewhere.

How will you incorporate reflection into your mathematics lessons? Reflection can occur at any time throughout the lesson, and can occur more than once per lesson. For example, when students are involved in a task and you notice they are struggling or perhaps not providing appropriate responses, a short, sharp verbal reflection would provide opportunity to change direction and address misconceptions. Reflection at the conclusion of a lesson consolidates learning, and also assists students in recognising the learning that has occurred. They are more likely to remember their learning when they’ve had to articulate it either verbally or in writing.

And to conclude, some reflection prompts for teachers (adapted from the REAL Framework):

  • How have you encouraged your students to think differently about their learning of mathematics?
  • What changes to your pedagogy are you considering to enhance the way you teach mathematics?
  • Explain how your thinking about mathematics teaching and learning is different today from yesterday, and from what it could be tomorrow?

 

References

Munns, G., & Woodward, H. (2006). Student engagement and student self-assessment: the REAL framework. Assessment in Education, 13(2), 193-213.

 

 

 

 

Promoting Creative and Critical thinking in Mathematics and Numeracy

What is critical and creative thinking, and why is it so important in mathematics and numeracy education?

Numeracy is often defined as the ability to apply mathematics in the context of day to day life. However, the term ‘critical numeracy’ implies much more. One of the most basic reasons for learning mathematics is to be able to apply mathematical skills and knowledge to solve both simple and complex problems, and, more than just allowing us to navigate our lives through a mathematical lens, being numerate allows us to make our world a better place.

The mathematics curriculum in Australia provides teachers with the perfect opportunity to teach mathematics through critical and creative thinking. In fact, it’s mandated. Consider the core processes of the curriculum. The Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2017), requires teachers to address four proficiencies: Problem Solving, Reasoning, Fluency, and Understanding. Problem solving and reasoning require critical and creative thinking (). This requirement is emphasised more heavily in New South wales, through the graphical representation of the mathematics syllabus content , which strategically places Working Mathematically (the proficiencies in NSW) and problem solving, at its core. Alongside the mathematics curriculum, we also have the General Capabilities, one of which is Critical and Creative Thinking – there’s no excuse!

Critical and creative thinking need to be embedded in every mathematics lesson. Why? When we embed critical and creative thinking, we transform learning from disjointed, memorisation of facts, to sense-making mathematics. Learning becomes more meaningful and purposeful for students.

How and when do we embed critical and creative thinking?

There are many tools and many methods of promoting thinking. Using a range of problem solving activities is a good place to start, but you might want to also use some shorter activities and some extended activities. Open-ended tasks are easy to implement, allow all learners the opportunity to achieve success, and allow for critical thinking and creativity. Tools such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Thinkers Keys  are also very worthwhile tasks. For good mathematical problems go to the nrich website. For more extended mathematical investigations and a wonderful array of rich tasks, my favourite resource is Maths300  (this is subscription based, but well worth the money). All of the above activities can be used in class and/or for homework, as lesson starters or within the body of a lesson.

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Will critical and creative thinking take time away from teaching basic concepts?

No, we need to teach mathematics in a way that has meaning and relevance, rather than through isolated topics. Therefore, teaching through problem-solving rather than for problem-solving. A classroom that promotes and critical and creative thinking provides opportunities for:

  • higher-level thinking within authentic and meaningful contexts;
  • complex problem solving;
  • open-ended responses; and
  • substantive dialogue and interaction.

Who should be engaging in critical and creative thinking?

Is it just for students? No! There are lots of reasons that teachers should be engaged with critical and creative thinking. First, it’s important that we model this type of thinking for our students. Often students see mathematics as black or white, right or wrong. They need to learn to question, to be critical, and to be creative. They need to feel they have permission to engage in exploration and investigation. They need to move from consumers to producers of mathematics.

Secondly, teachers need to think critically and creatively about their practice as teachers of mathematics. We need to be reflective practitioners who constantly evaluate our work, questioning curriculum and practice, including assessment, student grouping, the use of technology, and our beliefs of how children best learn mathematics.

Critical and creative thinking is something we cannot ignore if we want our students to be prepared for a workforce and world that is constantly changing. Not only does it equip then for the future, it promotes higher levels of student engagement, and makes mathematics more relevant and meaningful.

How will you and your students engage in critical and creative thinking?

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.