Tag Archives: professional development

Improving primary mathematics: The challenge of curriculum

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.

 

Using mathematical inquiry to make mathematics meaningful

At the moment I’m involved in a project with the Sydney Metro (Transport for NSW), currently the largest infrastructure project in Australia. When complete, the Sydney Metro project is going to change the way many Sydney residents work, live and socialise. My involvement with this project has required me to design, deliver and research the effectiveness of a professional learning program. In this program, teachers from all stages of schooling and a range of curriculum areas learn about using inquiry based learning and then design, implement and evaluate units of work that use the Sydney Metro project as the stimulus for inquiry.  So what’s that got to do with engaging maths? My work in this project has confirmed what I’ve always believed – contextualising learning makes mathematics (and other disciplines, of course) more meaningful, purposeful and relevant for students. It shifts the traditional approach of ‘just in case’ learning to ‘just in time learning’.

Using contexts from student’s lives, such as Sydney Metro, makes mathematics come alive. For example, some of the students participating in the inquiry based units are looking at the social implications of having a rail station constructed in their community where there previously wasn’t one. This inquiry provides a purpose for designing survey questions, collecting, representing and analysing data that has meaning and purpose. Others are looking at the engineering aspects of the project relating to the tunnelling that is currently underway. Some are working on design aspects relating to the trains themselves or the stations and some are looking at mapping – planning future metro lines, or timing (the system won’t have a timetable).

The possibilities are endless, but for these units of work (or indeed, any inquiry based unit of work) to be successful, the teachers planning them have to consider carefully the potential directions that students will take their inquiry if the units are to be true inquiry based learning that is driven by students’ interests. This requires a strong knowledge of curriculum and a willingness to hand over some control of the learning to the students. It may even involve the introduction of content beyond the students’ current grade.
Another consideration when planning inquiry units is the inclusion of other aspects of our curriculum, beyond content. For example, in mathematics we have the Proficiencies (Working Mathematically in NSW) that represent the processes of mathematics. It’s impossible to conduct inquiry based learning without these processes and inquiry learning is a perfect opportunity to develop, refine and show evidence of these processes. Then we have the General Capabilities. Again, inquiry based learning provides an opportunity to access mathematics while accessing these capabilities, enhancing the relevance of the learning.

Where do you find resources for inquiry? Take a look around at what is happening in your community, in the media, or simply the things that your students are interested in. Consider how those things could spark curiosity in your students (or how you could promote that curiosity within  your students). Model how to ask good questions (students need to know how to do this – it doesn’t always come naturally). Be prepared for it to get messy, search for resources that the students might need or help them find resources. Be prepared to teach a range of mathematical concepts as the need arises.

I’ll you with an example of a resource that I believe would be a great stimulus for inquiry – take a look, at let me know what you think! Every Drop Counts

Teachers and Mathematics: Making the most of professional development

Over the past week I have been involved in a number of professional development events for primary and secondary teachers of mathematics. This included presentations at a primary and middle years conference and a number of sessions involving the development of teachers as action researchers. This weekend I will be travelling to the US to attend the NCTM Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington DC and will be presenting a session there. All of these engagements with teachers reminded me of a post I published last year about what teachers do with the information they gain from attending professional development, particularly when it happens away from school. The following are some thoughts I wrote about last year – a timely reminder for those teachers who are taking time away from their students or in their personal time to deepen their knowledge about mathematics teaching and learning.

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 school context and curriculum in your state/country?

When you attend PD, you expect that the presenter is aware of the school/state/country context, and more importantly, the 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.

Tips for beginning primary teachers: What’s in your maths toolbox?

If you’re an early career teacher, chances are you spend lots of your spare time looking for good maths resources. Some of you may have your own class, while others are beginning their careers as a relief teacher, having to move from one class to another, and often between different schools. Many teachers who are starting out have to build their toolbox of resources from nothing. Where do you begin? How can you develop a bank of activities that suits lots of different levels and abilities, and engages children of diverse abilities?

One of the first things I would recommend would be to invest in a small range of materials that allow you to implement some simple tasks that could then be expanded into interesting and worthwhile mathematical investigations. For example, if you purchase around ten sets of playing cards (go to a cheap two dollar store), you could learn a few basic games (Snap, Making 10, Playing with Place Value – see my book Engaging Maths: Exploring Number) that could then be differentiated according to the students you are teaching. A simple game of Making 10 could be used from Grade 1 all the way to Grade 6 by simply changing the rules.

Other materials that are a ‘must have’ for beginning teachers are dice and dominoes. There are many simple investigations that could lead from simple explorations with these materials. For example, use the dice to explore probability or play a game of Greedy Pig. Play a traditional game of dominoes before adding a twist to it, or simply ask students to sort the dominoes (students have to select their own criteria for sorting)– an interesting way to gain insight into students’ mathematical thinking and a great opportunity for using mathematical language. Once students have sorted the dominoes conduct an ‘art gallery tour’ and ask other students to see if they can work out how others have sorted out their dominoes. Photograph the sorting and display then on an Interactive Whiteboard for a whole class discussion and reflection…the list goes on!

Another ‘must have’ for beginning teachers is a bank of good quality resource books. Don’t fall into the trap of purchasing Black Line Masters or books full of worksheets to photocopy. You don’t want your students to be disengaged! Books such as my Engaging Maths series (http://engagingmaths.co/teaching-resources/books/ ), or any of Paul Swan’s books or resources (http://www.drpaulswan.com.au/resources/) are a great place to start. Explore some of the excellent free resources available online such as http://nrich.maths.org/teacher-primary and http://illuminations.nctm.org/, but do be aware that some resources produced outside of Australia will need to adapted for the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics.

In my research on student engagement, I found that students would remember what they would recall as a ‘good’ mathematics lesson for a very long period of time. In fact, some of the students in my PhD study talked about a ‘good’ mathematics lesson two years after it had taken place. Whether you are lucky enough to have your own class or have to begin your career as a relief teacher moving from class to class, you can make an impact on the students in your care and the way the view mathematics by being prepared with your ‘toolbox’ of engaging and worthwhile activities.

 

Tips for Teachers: Setting up Your Students for Mathematical Success

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 this year 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.

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.