Reflecting on mathematics education in a time of crisis: An opportunity for change?

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.Willa Cather

The events of 2020 are going to remain with each of us for a very long time. In education, the swift shift to online learning along with continuing uncertainty will likely have a lasting impact on us individually and collectively. While many of us are exhausted and looking forward to a return to something that we’d call ‘normal’, some educators (including myself) will view this turbulent time as an opportunity to take stock, reflect, and learn: an opportunity for change.

For a long time, I have been arguing that for positive change to occur in mathematics education, we need to ‘put the brakes on’, stop, and recalibrate. It seemed that this was an impossible wish. How could we orchestrate such an opportunity with so many external and internal pressures on individual classrooms, schools, and school systems? How can we change teaching and assessment practices that have been formed over generations and that are now so misaligned with the world we now live in and the needs of our students? Just when I thought this would never happen, along came a global pandemic, a forced lockdown that pushed teachers into the digital space, requiring some serious reorganisation and rethinking of teaching and learning.

New ways of educating in the digital space

Just prior to the shift to online learning, my colleague Kath Holmes and I launched a new book, Technology-Enabled Mathematics Education: Optimising Student Engagement (Attard & Holmes, 2020b). In this book we present case studies of 10 mathematics teachers (from pre-school to senior secondary) who are regarded by their peers as effective users of technology in their mathematics classes. Little did we know how timely this research would be: many of the practices described in our book would be the practices adopted by many teachers as a result of COVID-19. Some of these practices included the use of learning management systems as a repository for tasks that students could access at a time that suited them, rather than limited their access to timetabled lesson time. Other practices included the use of a blended/flipped approach where teachers use short, sharp videos to explain concepts, allowing students the opportunity to pause or re-play the lessons as often as required. While differentiation is always challenging, teachers featured in our book used technology to provide different learning pathways, choice of activities and varied levels of challenge to cater to their students’ needs. Others drew on a repertoire of digital tools to design rich and open-ended tasks that incorporated a hands-on approach to learning.

While each teacher’s use of digital technologies is and should be unique, there were similarities amongst the teachers who feature in our book. The use of technology, particularly in the secondary classrooms, promoted and supported the pedagogical relationships between the teachers and their students.

New ways of building and supporting pedagogical relationships

Why are pedagogical relationships so important in mathematics classrooms? The development and maintenance of positive relationships are a critical foundation for student engagement. We all know that engagement with mathematics is a constant challenge, particularly as students move through the middle years of school through to secondary education (Attard, 2014; Attard & Holmes, 2020a). If students don’t feel they have a good relationship with their mathematics teachers, there is a good chance they will be disengaged with learning.  

One of the major concerns during the pandemic-induced online teaching period was that teaching and learning relationships would be difficult to maintain. However, many teachers found that this was not the case. The use of digital communication tools enabled by learning management systems ensured that many teachers were able to communicate regularly and effectively with their students. Even better, communication with parents improved. While this was not the case for everyone, those who were able to use videos, videoconferencing, email and messaging applications found them to be beneficial and some have even found that they enhanced the pedagogical relationships between teachers and their students. Teachers learned more about their students because of the way they communicated and the ways in which students responded to learning online.

Rethinking student engagement

In our current research project, we’re investigating the impact of COVID-19 on technology-enabled teaching across the various curriculum areas. We’ve already begun gathering data through a survey and teacher interviews (you may be interested in responding to the survey). Many of the teachers we have spoken to have indicated that while most of their students appeared to be engaged with online learning, not all were. In some cases, the disengagement was the result of a lack of access to a device, for example, many students had to share a device with siblings or had internet connectivity issues. Some students simply did not like working in isolation, where others thrived on having the choice of when and where they could complete their work. Many teachers have expressed surprise that some students who typically were disengaged during face-to-face teaching, were highly engaged during the online period.

Perhaps this is the time to reflect on the elements of online learning that promoted engagement. Can these elements be carried forward and implemented into our ‘normal’ face-to-face practices? Should more flexible, blended approaches be used to maximise student engagement?

What we are noticing about student engagement is that it is intrinsically linked to each teacher’s affinity with technology and his or her beliefs about technology and how it can be used within one’s subject area. In turn, these things are often influenced by the school culture, community, context and the commitment to technology use.

The Technology Integration Pyramid

One of the outcomes of our book was a new, three-dimensional framework for technology-enabled teaching. The Technology Integration Pyramid (Mathematics) (TIP(M)) emerged from existing frameworks and the findings of our study. TIP(M) is conceptualised as a three-dimensional model to illustrate the connections and inter-related elements within it that teachers should consider when planning for the use of any technology, regardless of device, software, access and school context. The acknowledgement that we must consider the influences on the use of technology (the base of the pyramid) is unique to this framework and its importance has been illustrated quite clearly in the recent pandemic-enforced online learning period. Variations of the effectiveness of online learning will likely emerge from current research to be heavily influenced by school culture, community, commitment and content.

We believe the TIP(M) will assist in future-proofing technology-infused teaching and learning, particularly in current times when shifting to online learning has become a reality. It presents a holistic means of understanding the parameters within which teachers operate and a recognition that student engagement with mathematics is a critical element for learning to occur in contemporary classrooms.

The Technology Integration Pyramid (Mathematics) (TIP(M)). (Attard & Holmes, 2020b).

Learning from the storm: Now what?

While we may have weathered the storm of online learning for now, we live in uncertain times. There are no guarantees that lockdowns will not occur in future. Regardless, technology is here to stay, and the lockdown has, like it or not, forced many reluctant teachers into using technology, and hopefully, experiencing the affordances and resulting benefits for our students. We absolutely must not waste this opportunity to reflect on what we have learned from the storm and what we change to improve the education experience of our students.

How will you reflect and act upon what has been learned in 2020? What will be different in your classroom/school/system?

SURVEY LINK: https://surveyswesternsydney.au1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6AmgoLh1N7ZDktn

AMSI MathsTalk Podcast: https://mathstalk.podbean.com/e/keep-calm-remain-critical-with-dr-catherine-attard/

References

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.

Attard, C., & Holmes, K. (2020a). “It gives you that sense of hope”: An exploration of technology use to mediate student engagement with mathematics. Heliyon, 6(1), e02945. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e02945

Attard & Holmes. (2020b). Technology-enabled mathematics education: Optimising student engagement. Routledge.

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