Tag Archives: homework

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:


  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?


  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!

Setting Your Child up for Success with Maths: Tips for Parents

As a new school year approaches, many parents are busy preparing their children to ensure they have the things they need to be successful. School uniforms, books, pens and pencils are important, but what’s even more important is the preparation and support parents can provide to help children succeed academically.

Late in 2016 there were reports from international testing that Australia continues to slip further behind in mathematics when compared to other countries.  So, what can you do about this? Relying on teachers alone won’t fix the problem. There are many things parents can and should do to help their children learn mathematics, particularly before they begin school and during the primary school years. The following is a list of tips for parents that will help them to help their children succeed:

  1. Be positive about maths!

May people openly claim they don’t like maths or they’re not good at it, unintentionally conveying the message that this is okay. Unfortunately, this can have a detrimental effect on the children who hear these messages. In my research on student engagement, children whose parents made similar comments often used the same comments as mathematics became more challenging during the high school years. These behaviours can lead to children opting to stop trying and drop out of mathematics as soon as they can, ultimately limiting their life choices.

As a parent, be conscious of displaying positive attitudes towards mathematics, even when it’s challenging. Adopting what is referred to as a ‘growth mindset’ allows children (and parents) to acknowledge that mathematics is challenging, but not impossible. Rather than saying “I can’t do it” or “it’s too hard”, encourage statements such as “I can’t do it yet” or “let’s work on this together”. If you’re struggling with the mathematics yourself, and finding it difficult to support your child, there are options such as free online courses like Jo Boaler’s YouCubed website (www.youcubed.org), apps such as Khan Academy, or you can seek help from their child’s teacher.

If you choose to use a tutor to help your child, make sure it’s a tutor who knows how to teach for understanding, rather than memorisation. Too often tutoring colleges use the traditional teaching method of drill and practice, which won’t help a struggling student to understand important mathematical concepts. Find a tutor who understands the curriculum and can tailor a program to work alongside what your child is learning at school.

  1. Developing a positive working relationship with teachers

It’s important for parents to work with their child’s teacher to ensure they are able to support the learning of mathematics. This will help the teacher understand the child’s needs and be better able to support the child in the classroom, while at the same time helping the parents support the child at home. Often schools hold information evenings or maths workshops to help explain current teaching methods with few parents turning up. It’s important to attend these events as they are a good opportunity to learn ways to help children with mathematics at home.

  1. Know what maths your child is learning

Mathematics teaching and learning has changed significantly over the last few decades. Unfortunately, many of the older generations still expect children to be learning the same maths in the same way, regardless of how much the world has changed! Access to the mathematics curriculum is free to everyone. Parents have the opportunity to find out what their child should be learning simply by accessing the curriculum online, or talking to their child’s teacher. This can help parents who may have unrealistic expectations of what their child should know and be able to do, and will also help them understand that mathematics is not just about numbers or learning the multiplication tables.

One of the most common complaints when it comes to school mathematics is that children don’t ‘know’ their multiplication tables. Is this important? Yes, it’s still important that children gain fluency when dealing with numbers. However, it’s also important that we don’t just rely on rote learning, or repetition. Children need to understand how the numbers work. In other words, they need to be numerate, and have a flexibility with numbers. Once they understand, then fluency can be built. Using maths games (there are lots of apps that help with this) is a good way of getting children to build up speed with number facts.

  1. Make maths part of everyday activities

Bring maths into daily conversations and activities with your child. After all, there’s maths in everything we do. For example, if you’re cooking you might ask your child to help you measure out ingredients. If you’re shopping, you could have a little competition to see who can make the best estimation of the total grocery bill or perhaps ask your child to work out the amount of change (this may be challenging given that we use credit cards most of the time).

If your child likes to play digital games, download some maths apps so they can use their screen time to learn while having fun at the same time. Alternatively, traditional games can provide opportunities to talk about maths and help your child. Games that use dominoes and playing cards are great for young children as are board games such as Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly. Even non-numerical games such as Guess Who have benefits for mathematics because the promote problem solving and strategic thinking, important mathematical skills.

Parents who can work with their child’s teacher, be proactive in their child’s education, and demonstrate positive attitudes towards mathematics can make a big difference to their child’s success at school. It’s an investment worth making.























Making mathematics relevant: Putting the ‘home’ back into homework

I wrote this post a couple of years ago and it was published on the UWS 21st Century Learning Blog and a slightly modified version was republished in the online journal, Curriculum Leadership. I am republishing it again here as I think the message is as important as ever!

The start of a new school year is a perfect time to reflect on and perhaps make adjustments to the pedagogical practices we use in our day-to-day teaching of mathematics. If our goal is to produce successful learners of mathematics and students who choose to continue the study of mathematics beyond the mandatory years, then we need to ensure our students are engaged and motivated to learn both within and beyond the classroom. The purpose of this post is to argue that if we need to set mathematics homework, it should reflect ‘best’ practice and should provide students with opportunities to extend their learning in ways that highlight the relevance of mathematics in their lives outside school while practising and applying mathematical concepts learned within the classroom.

The pedagogical practices employed within mathematics classrooms cover a broad spectrum that ranges from ‘traditional’, text book based lessons, to more contemporary constructivist approaches that include rich problem solving and investigation based lessons, or a combination of both. When asked to recall a typical mathematics lessons, many people cite a traditional, teacher-centred approach in which a routine of teacher demonstration, student practice using multiple examples from a text book and then further multiple, text book generated questions are provided for homework (Even & Tirosh, 2008; Goos, 2004; Ricks, 2009).

Traditional, teacher-centred approaches have been found to result in low levels of motivation and engagement among students (Boaler, 2009), and although there is an abundance of research that promotes a more constructivist, student-centred approach, one study found traditional practices continue to dominate, occurring more often than student-centred approaches in mathematics education (McKinney, Cappell, Berry, & Hickman, 2009). If many teachers are continuing to teach in such way, then it is likely that many set mathematics homework that continues to be repetitious and merely a provision of further practice of concepts learned during lessons.

While it is critical that students are provided with many opportunities to practice mathematical concepts learned at school, perhaps we need to consider how homework can be structured so that it is motivating, engaging, challenging, and most importantly, relevant. One of the most common complaints from students with regard to mathematics education is the lack of relevance to their lives outside the school. It is an expectation of today’s students that learning is meaningful and makes sense to them (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, 2009; NSW Department of Education and Training, 2003). There needs to be a directional shift in the way we establish relevance and applicability in mathematical engagement because the type of mathematics that students use outside school is often radically different in content and approach to the mathematics they encounter in school (Lowrie, 2004). Homework provides the perfect opportunity for students to make connections between school mathematics and ‘home’ mathematics.

So what would motivating, engaging, challenging and relevant mathematics homework look like? That all depends on you and your imagination! When I was a Year 6 classroom teacher, one of the most popular homework activities amongst my students was based on Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys. Students would be provided with a range of activities that included an element of choice. Each activity was much more creative than a typical mathematics task yet provided challenge for students and an opportunity for them to apply their understandings of mathematical concepts. For example, in a range of activities based on multiplication and division, one of the tasks, the Question Key, required students to respond to the following prompt: How is multiplication related to division? Write an explanation appropriate for a Year 4 child. Use an example to show how multiplication is related to division. The Brainstorming Key required students to make links to real-life: Brainstorm examples of everyday situations that require you to use multiplication and division. Record your responses in a mind map.

Another great idea for homework with younger students is to have them take photographs of their home environment that directly relate to the mathematics being learned at school. For example, in a study of 3D objects, students could photograph and label 3D objects found in their homes. Students could draw floor plans of their homes when learning about scale, position, area and perimeter. At a higher level, students could solve real-life problems that require the application of a number of mathematical concepts such as selecting the best mobile phone plan, comparison of household bills, budgeting, etc.

How much work would be involved in planning this type of homework? One approach to planning homework tasks would be to work within stage/grade teams to design a bank of tasks that could be re-used from one year to another. As with many things, once you begin to plan and design rich homework tasks, it gets easier. Often ideas also come from the students. Consider tasks that vary in length from quick, one-day homework tasks to longer term tasks that may take two or three weeks from students to complete. Also consider your priority: quality or quantity?

How hard would it be to assess and provide feedback on homework tasks? If we expect students to engage with and complete their mathematics homework, then we must provide constructive feedback. In my previous research on student engagement with mathematics, some students were frustrated when their teacher did not mark homework: “If they don’t give you feedback then you don’t know if you’re doing it right or wrong, or if you need improving or anything.” Marking and providing feedback on homework should not be viewed as a burden but rather a critical part of the teaching and learning process. The way feedback is delivered depends on the nature of the task.

Finally, when setting homework, we need to reflect on our purpose for doing so. Are we doing it to keep the parents happy and the students busy, or do we want to support students’ learning in a seamless link between school and home, providing opportunities for students to apply concepts in real-world situations?


Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers. (2009). School mathematics for the 21st century: Some key influences. Adelaide, S.A.: AAMT Inc.

Boaler, J. (2009). The elephant in the classroom: Helping children learn and love maths. London: Souvenir Press Ltd.

Even, R., & Tirosh, D. (2008). Teacher knowledge and understanding of students’ mathematical learning and thinking. In L. D. English (Ed.), Handbook of international research in mathematics education (2nd ed., pp. 202-222). New York: Routledge.

Goos, M. (2004). Learning mathematics in a classroom community of inquiry. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 35(4), 258-291.

Lowrie, T. (2004, 4-5 December). Making mathematics meaningful, realistic and personalised: Changing the direction of relevance and applicability. Paper presented at the Mathematical Association of Victoria Annual Conference 2004: Towards Excellence in Mathematics, Monash University, Clayton, Vic.

McKinney, S., Cappell, S., Berry, R. Q., & Hickman, B. T. (2009). An examination of the instructional practices of mathematics teachers in urban schools. Preventing School Failure, 53(4), 278-284.

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

Ricks, T. E. (2009). Mathematics is motivating. The Mathematics Educator, 19(2), 2-9.