Tag Archives: planning and programming

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

 

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.

More tips for the new teaching year: Ability grouping and mathematics

A few months ago I posted a blog about ability grouping in the mathematics classroom. I am re-posting the blog here because the beginning of the school year is the perfect opportunity to set up routines and strategies that will promote mathematical learning and ensure the diversities of your new class group are addressed. I strongly recommend flexible grouping in mathematics and I hope this post causes you to think about how you will be grouping your students in 2016.

During the primary years students either experience mathematics lessons within mixed ability classrooms or are ability grouped across or between grade levels. In mixed ability classes and to a lesser degree in ability grouped classrooms teachers often have to cater for a range of students whose previous attainment varies considerably. The gap between low and high achievers is said to increase as students progress through school, with as much difference in performance within year levels as there is between Years 5 and 9 students overall (State of Victoria Department of Education and Training, 2004). This concurs with findings by The Middle Years Numeracy Research Project (Siemon, Virgona, & Corneille, 2001) that cites teachers in the middle years can and should expect a range of up to seven school years in numeracy-related performance. Australian TIMSS and PISA reports show our middle years students, when compared to students in other countries, are not keeping up with some aspects of mathematics (Lokan, Greenwood, & Cresswell, 2001). Among the strategies teachers implement in order to cater to the diverse needs of the classroom is the use of ability grouping and the incorporation of differentiated tasks.

Although there are arguments both in favour and against the use of ability grouping, it is not uncommon for primary and secondary schools in Australia and internationally to use such grouping in mathematics classrooms. The following is an exploration of both arguments. Clarke (2003) maintains teachers need to think carefully about reasons for choosing to place students into groups according to perceived ability. Teachers need to consider the potential impact upon students’ self-esteem, and the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Brophy 1963, as cited in Clarke, 2003), in which students perform to the level expected of them by their teacher. He concludes that ability grouping is used in mathematics for teacher convenience more than for student benefit. This is a sentiment echoed by Boaler, Wiliam and Brown (2000), who also believe ability grouping is one of the main sources of disaffection.

Ability grouping, such as that which is common in Australian secondary schools, became the focus of a study conducted in the United Kingdom (Boaler, et al., 2000). The grouping of students into ability ‘sets’ emerged as a significant factor that influenced students’ ideas, their responses to mathematics, and their eventual achievement. The study found that students in the school that used ability grouping were significantly disadvantaged by their placement and this disadvantage was not restricted to students in the lower ability groups. Approximately one-third of students in the highest ability groups felt disadvantaged because of high expectations, fast-paced lessons and pressure to succeed. Students from a range of groups were ‘severely disaffected’ by the limits placed upon their attainment. Students reported that they gave up on mathematics once they discovered their teachers had been preparing them for examinations that gave access to only the lowest grades. Large numbers of students, in the study by Boaler et al., experienced difficulties working at the pace of their particular class. For some the pace was too slow, resulting in disengagement, although for others it was too fast, resulting in anxiety. Both responses led to lower levels of achievement.

In addition to the findings above, there is research that claims ability grouping causes behavioural problems for some within the mathematics classroom. Teachers in a study conducted by Ventakatakrishnan and Wiliam (2003) found behavioural problems more common in mixed ability groups than in their fast-track, higher ability group. These behavioural problems were compounded by the weak literacy skills of some individuals in these groups in addition to peer self-management skills. Interestingly, placing students in ‘tracked’ groups had an effect on students’ perceptions of themselves as learners of mathematics. Those who were fast-tracked perceived themselves as ‘doing well’ while those in mixed ability groups perceived themselves as ‘low’ in mathematical ability. The teachers involved in the study also noted they had problems motivating the higher attaining students within the mixed-ability groups – students who had ‘just’ missed out on being placed in the fast tracked group. Ventakatakrishnan and Wiliam also note that mixed-ability grouping decreases the opportunities for higher-achieving students to interact constructively with peers although ability groups have the same effect on lower achieving students. The study found that advantages of grouping by ability are limited and restricted to higher achieving students while causing disadvantage to those who are the lowest attainers.

Although there are advantages and disadvantages in grouping students according to ability, it is also reasonable to expect that a result of such grouping is differences in teacher expectations and instructional techniques. There is a tendency for instruction in lower ability groups to be of a different quality to that of higher ability groups (Ireson & Hallam, 1999). There appears to be a concern that instruction in low ability groups is conceptually simplified with a higher degree of structured, written work, as in the traditional method of teaching mathematics. Higher ability classes appear to include more analytic, critical thinking tasks with pupils allowed greater independence and choice along with opportunities for discussion, reflecting a more contemporary style of mathematics lesson. Based on stereotypes and past experiences, some teachers hold low expectations for low ability groups, further decreasing students’ own expectations and self-esteem, and leading to decreased levels of engagement with mathematics (Ireson & Hallam, 1999).

At the primary level classroom, research suggests students in mixed ability classrooms display more positive attitudes towards school in general (Ashton, 2008; Ofsted, 2008). However, the more common practice of ability grouping in the secondary mathematics classroom is a complex issue. Although it appears to perpetuate the inequities associated with mathematics and the notion of mathematics being an elitist subject, it is often an attempt to address the needs of all students as well as the needs of mathematics teachers.

So what is the answer? Again, my advice is to group flexiblyThere are circumstances that require children to be grouped by ability, and other circumstances where it is more appropriate and beneficial for students to work in mixed groupings, where students can learn from each other. Another reason to have flexibility is that often children may excel in one area of mathematics, but may be challenged in other areas. Those who appear to struggle, may not necessarily struggle with all concepts. The key is knowing your students and their needs across all aspects of the mathematics curriculum, and ensuring that assessment of students’ ability informs teaching and the way students are grouped. And finally, have high expectations of all students!

References:

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

Boaler, J, Wiliam, D, & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ experiences of ability grouping: Disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. British Educational Research Journal, 26(5), 631-649.

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.

Ireson, J., & Hallam, S. (1999). Raising standards: Is ability grouping the answer? Oxford Review of Education, 25(3), 343-358.

Lokan, J., Greenwood, L., & Cresswell, J. (2001). 15-up and counting, reading, writing, reasoning. How literate are Australia’s students? The PISA 2000 survey of students’ reading, mathematical and scientific literacy skills. Melbourne: ACER.

Ofsted. (2008). Mathematics: Understanding the score. London: Ofsted.

Siemon, D., Virgona, J., & Corneille, K. (2001). Final report of the middle years numeracy research project. Melbourne, Victoria: RMIT University and the Department of Education and Training (Victoria).

State of Victoria Department of Education and Training. (2004). Middle years of schooling overview of Victorian Research 1998-2004 Retrieved July 7, 2005, from http://www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/mys/docs/research/

Venkatakrishnan, H., & Wiliam, D. (2003). Tracking and mixed-ability grouping in secondary school mathematics classrooms: A case study. British Educational Research Journal, 29(2), 189-204.

 

 

Programming & planning dilemmas in primary mathematics

Often when I work with teachers I am asked for advice regarding the design of a scope and sequence for mathematics. The programming and planning of mathematics seems to cause much concern, and often the reason is that there is no ‘magic fix’ or one-size-fits-all solution.

Traditionally, schools have planned their mathematics teaching using a topic-by-topic or strand-by-strand approach. Sometimes there is a formula for teaching the Number and Algebra strand for a certain number of days per week, with the other days dedicated to the remaining syllabus strands. Often, the strands are split into single, stand-alone topics. Unfortunately, there are issues with this approach. Teaching individual topics in mathematics hinders students in gaining a deep understanding of mathematics and the connections that exist between and amongst the strands. Teaching in this way can promote a traditional, rote learning approach where the opportunities for mathematical thinking are limited. Our curriculum places the proficiencies (Working Mathematically in New South Wales) at the forefront of teaching and learning mathematics – teaching topics in isolation does not promote the proficiencies.

So what’s the solution? Consider planning and programming using a ‘big idea’ approach. What’s a big idea? Big ideas are hard to define and different people have differing ideas on what the big ideas in mathematics actually are. However, all the definitions in literature have one thing in common – they all refer to big ideas as the key to making connections between mathematical content and mathematical actions, and they all link mathematical concepts. Take, for example, the big idea of equivalence. This relates to number and numeration, measurement, number theory and fractions, and algebraic expressions and equations. Connections can be made across the strands and these links should be made explicit to students.

Charles (2005) presents a total of 21 big ideas across the mathematics curriculum, however he states that these are not fixed – they can be adapted. He also states that a big ideas approach has implications for curriculum and assessment and professional development – teachers need to develop their pedagogical content knowledge to ensure they have a deep understanding of the connections within the curriculum if they are to teach mathematics successfully.

Of course, there are challenges to teaching using a big ideas approach. Teachers often feel under pressure to address all curriculum outcomes, and often this is the reason that the topic-by-topic approach is adopted. Using a big ideas approach can feel messy – it is not linear and in some ways feels as though it is conflicting with the organisation of our curriculum. However, we must remember that although our curriculum is separated into strands and sub-strands, this is simply an organisational tool and does not mean that mathematics should be taught in this same way.

My advice would be to take our curriculum, pull it apart and try seeing it differently – what areas of the curriculum have obvious links? How can you link aspects of measurement to the number strand? Where does measurement and geometry link? And how can you use the statistic and probability strand to teach number concepts? Making connections will make your teaching easier in the long run, and more importantly, will result in deeper learning and deeper engagement with mathematics.

 

Randall, C. (2005). Big ideas and understandings as the foundation for elementary and middle school mathematics. NCSM Journal, 7(3), 9-24.