Arguably one of the biggest challenges for most primary teachers is the struggle to address the many components of the mathematics curriculum within the confines of a daily timetable. How many times have you felt there just isn’t enough time to teach every outcome and every ‘dot point’ in the entire mathematics curriculum for your grade in one year? It is my belief that one of the biggest issues in mathematics teaching at the moment stems from misconceptions about what and how we’re supposed to be teaching, regardless of which curriculum or syllabus you are following. The way we, as teachers, perceive the content and intent of our curriculum influences whether students engage and achieve success in mathematics. The way we experienced the curriculum when we were at school also influences how mathematics is taught in our own classrooms.
This struggle arises partially from the common perception that every outcome (in NSW) or Content Descriptor (from the Australian Curriculum) must be addressed as an individual topic, often because of the way the syllabus/curriculum is organised (this is not a criticism – the content has to be organised in a logical manner). This often results in mathematical concepts being taught in an isolated manner, without any real context for students. A result of this is a negative impact on student engagement. Students fail to see how the mathematics relates to their real lives and how it is applied to various situations. They also fail to see the connections amongst and within the mathematical concepts.
Imagine if you could forget everything you remember about teaching and learning mathematics from when you were at school. Now think about the three content strands in our curriculum: Number and Algebra, Measurement and Geometry, and Statistics and Probability. Where are the connections within and amongst these strands? If you could, how would you draw a graphical representation of all the connections and relationships? Would your drawing look like a tangled web, or would it look like a set of rows and columns? I’m hoping it would like more like a tangled web! Try this exercise – take one strand, list the content of that strand, and then list how that content applies to the other two strands. If you can see these connections, now consider why we often don’t teach that way. How can you teach mathematics in a different way that will allow students to access rich mathematical relationships rather than topics in isolation? How can we make mathematics learning more meaningful for our students so that maths makes sense?
This leads me to my second point and what I believe is happening in many classrooms as a result of misunderstanding the intention of the mathematics curriculum. If students are experiencing difficulties or need more time to understand basic concepts, you don’t have to cover every aspect of the syllabus. It is our responsibility as teachers to ensure we lay strong foundations before continuing to build – we all know mathematics is hierarchical – if the foundations are weak, the building will collapse. If students don’t understand basic concepts such as place value, it doesn’t make sense to just place the ‘strugglers’ in the ‘bottom’ group and move on to the next topic.
We need to trust in our professional judgement and we need to understand that it’s perfectly okay to take the time and ensure ALL learners understand what they need to before moving on to more complex and abstract mathematics. It most definitely means more work for the teacher, and it also means that those in positions of leadership need to trust in the professional judgement of their teachers. Most importantly, it means that we are truly addressing the needs of the learners in front of us – the most important stakeholders in education.