Why is it that so many students struggle with numeracy? Is it coincidence that Asian countries out perform the rest of the world when it comes to maths? Do we as teachers perpetuate the view that maths is intrinsically difficult?
Seven years ago, the National Numeracy Review recommended greater emphasis in the early years be given to ‘providing students with frequent exposure to higher-level mathematical problems.’ It went on to state that it should be in a context that is relevant to the learner. I still hear adults say that learning algebra or long division was a complete waste of time.
Central to deconstructing the myth of Mathematics is about contextualising the learning. How can teachers make mathematics relevant to each learner and therefore more engaging and challenging?
Professor Peter Sullivan from Monash University says we have a fundamental problem with teaching Mathematics and we need to think differently about the way we teach maths in primary and secondary.
As a result of the Review, we introduced three system initiatives which invest in the professional learning and competency of teachers supported by leaders. Our approach has always been that improving teacher understanding and learning improves student understanding and learning.
We are fortunate to have partnered with Professor Sullivan on the EM4 (English Mathematics Stage 4) program. It began last year as ‘first wave’ teaching in English and Mathematics in secondary schools. It is about creating opportunities for students to enhance and extend their skills and knowledge. These strategies all rely on data and professional learning to inform good practice. For me, these should be evident across all key learning areas not only English and Mathematics. However, without a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy, we cannot build upon a student’s learning.
EM4’s premise is to get students to think creatively about problem solving by posing questions that they don’t know how to do. Professor Sullivan makes the point that we have taught maths by telling students what to do and then getting them to practice what they are told. However, in this model, students create the maths not the teachers.
It’s a move away from the one approach fits all in favour of the many paths to the top of the mountain. According to the data being collected by Professor Sullivan, student-driven learning is leading to a deeper understanding of Mathematics.
I have been amazed when visiting these classrooms by the rich mathematical discussions between students. Very different from my experiences of school maths. Many of the teachers I speak to acknowledge that these strategies have led to a shift in practice and a new way of seeing their role in supporting rather than driving learning.
This “open to learning” approach by both the teacher and the student is the powerful engine driving a very different schooling experience . What is not made explicit, but is at the core of this approach is the shift of responsibility for the learning. For the teacher it is recognising that the curriculum requirements but then engaging in designing learning experience for each student. For the student it shifts the focus from one right answer to the process of how they arrived at that answer. Ultimately they both take responsibility for their learning.
Jane Caro wrote this week that “Chile, unlike Australia, is heading in the right direction” with its bill before parliament to ban public funding of for profit private schools along with free primary and secondary schooling.
I can understand why Chile’s President wants to adopt a new educational funding policy. Chile’s existing system was instituted under a dictatorship, hence why for profit schools are publicly funded. Australia on the other hand does not fund for profit schools.
Educational funding has to be based on equity across all school sectors not just one. In other words, needs based and sector-blind. Any argument about funding should focus on students not on sectors. If we venture down the public vs private debate as Caro has done, we divert our attention away from what really matters – improving learning for all students in all schools.
If Australia is to head in the right direction, perhaps it’s time to work collaboratively (all sectors) to use the funding to improve the quality of teaching in all schools. If Caro wants to focus on non-government funding, perhaps she can lobby the Federal Government to honour their end of the deal (last two years of Gonski funding).
Stanford University in the US is working with Pearson to operationalise an assessment for beginning teachers as part of a national strategy to introduce a single method for assessment.
Nathan Estel, Director, Educator Relations at the Evaluation Systems group of Pearson says the work has provided a clearer picture of how universities are preparing graduates for work in schools.
Nathan says many US states are already using the Educative Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) as a policy lever to bring about greater cooperation and changes to teacher preparation programs.
It aims to encourage universities to think about new ways of providing ongoing professional learning and support for teachers once they enter the profession.
edTPA is designed around four key competencies:
- Content knowledge (computer based assessment)
- Differentiation in instruction (portfolio based)
- Teaching practice and learning environment
- Effective and Reflective Practitioner
A national assessment tool provides insight into future possibilities for the what and how of graduate teacher accreditation in other jurisdictions. This illustrates how systems and organisations are working collaboratively to provide greater support for teachers especially beginning teachers.
Last week I had another opportunity to visit two Victorian primary schools that for me demonstrate good theory in practice. Woorana Park and Silverton Primary schools have established themselves as authentic learning communities. Over many years under good instructional leaders they have evaluated their practice, implemented rigorous feedback mechanisms, listened to student and parent voices and used the learning space and technology to support contemporary pedagogies.
As one of my readers pointed out, ‘open classrooms’ have a very low effect size according to Hattie’s meta-analysis. This is absolutely true. Just as no teacher is an island (see Hattie’s comments on direct instruction), there is no one pedagogy (or classroom design) that delivers everything. As Woorana Park and Silverton Primary have demonstrated, the use of agile learning spaces is just a fraction of the whole to improve student learning outcomes. Learning spaces support good teaching practices but they never act as a substitute for them.
I don’t believe quality instruction ever left the classroom. Successful teachers have always had a thorough understanding of how students learn and have adopted and adapted pedagogies informed by research, reflection and inquiry.
The essential principles of effective learning provide us with the foundations of appropriate pedagogies but they must be creatively applied in ways which maximise opportunities and respond to demands of today’s world.
However, if you read Kevin Donnelly’s latest opinion piece, traditional teaching is somehow making a comeback. Donnelly claims that the ‘tide has finally turned’ against educational fads such as open classrooms and discovery learning.
Donnelly doesn’t define traditional teaching so I’m assuming he is referring to the type of didactic teaching associated with a traditional model of schooling.
According to John Hattie, direct instruction (which isn’t traditional) is reflected in the way teachers work together ‘to plan and critique a series of lessons, sharing understanding of progression, articulating intentions and success criteria, and attending to the impact of student and teacher learning.’ (Visible Learning for Teachers)
While it’s true that the learning space is never a substitute for quality instruction, agile spaces provide opportunities for teachers to engage in the kind of planning and teacher learning that is most effective in improving student learning. Many teachers I have spoken to have said the new spaces support collaboration and therefore the process of direct instruction.
Donnelly however cites results from a survey of noise levels in open classrooms in which 50-70% of children said they couldn’t hear their teacher very well. What Donnelly failed to include in his piece, was that the survey was conducted in four schools only.
When you don’t understand the world in which today’s learners live, it is easy to disparage contemporary approaches to schooling. In fact, most contemporary approaches are still largely influenced by traditional structures, curricula and mindsets. We don’t have enough examples yet of great contemporary practice to point to – not because it doesn’t work but it doesn’t yet exist.
These so called educational fads are not designed to replace quality instruction – they are designed to support it. Agile learning spaces support a range of learning activities. And isn’t discovery at the heart of learning anyway?
Replicating an industrial model of schooling has only led to the gap between schooling and learning growing wider in an online world. We can’t hark back to the past if we want to change the future. We are challenged to think differently by virtue of the fact we live in age that now values critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
The OECD recognises the importance of these skills not only for the success of economies but also for individuals participating in a knowledge age. It’s worth noting that PISA will test creativity from 2017.
We have always known that the most effective teaching is evidence-based. It’s a pity Kevin Donnelly’s arguments still seem to be largely ideologically driven.
If you ask the general population about their perception of teaching, I am sure the response would be 9-3pm working day, lots of holidays. Teaching is a profession that is still defined by its (industrial) conditions.
The scope of teachers work remains categorised by a school week, a school term or a school year. The roots of the industrial model of schooling extend well into the 21st century. How many people including teachers themselves believe this is the totality of teachers’ work? Think about how we define teachers work today: number of students in a class, number of hours they can expect to be face-to-face, hours on playground duty etc. School days are divided into periods separated by a bell and controlled by timetables. School years are divided into four terms punctuated by breaks.
This has inevitably influenced how teachers’ work is perceived and even defined by the profession itself. However we know the work of teachers is complex and deeper than is recognised.
Christopher Bantick wrote recently that teaching has ‘become a milch cow for commentators and critics who have either never spent time in a school or whose experience of schools is outdated and ossified. Everyone has a view, but few have actual present classroom experience.” Bantick argues for increasing ATAR scores for teacher training arguing that you “can’t make a teacher out of someone who is not academically excellent.”
Teaching must attract the best of the best. In Finland for example, teaching attracts higher results than medicine or engineering. For me the issue is not simply one of academic rigour, it’s also a question of fit for purpose. You can’t become a great teacher unless you have a passion to teach. Teaching is highly relational and as Educational Leadership Professor Richard Elmore states if you can’t see the relationship between teacher, student in the presence of content in a classroom (instructional core), then it isn’t there.
Two of my colleagues from Parramatta Marist High recently returned from Finland where they participated in the Global Education Community conference. Kurt and Gavin identified three key lessons from their Finnish Education experience:
- There is a huge investment in developing high quality teachers. Bantick is right in that you need to start from a high base but teachers are like raw diamonds, the finer the crafting the better outcome. High quality teachers need continual polishing and re-polishing.
- Decision making and assessment is locally driven. This acknowledges the professionalism of teachers to make critical judgments on the ‘length, breadth and depth of the curriculum’ to meet the changing needs of students.
- Teacher autonomy leads to greater trust. It is a given that teachers know how to teach, know what is required and are able to focus their efforts and attention on improving student learning. Nothing more and nothing less.
I asked them to reflect on what it means locally. In their view, teacher professionalism in Australia needs to meet “the needs of the 21st century especially in terms of graduates coming from university.” Teaching needs to be seen as a profession not a job so that teachers themselves are responsible for making the best decisions for learning and teaching.
As Finland has demonstrated, minimum academic standards for teaching are just the tip of the iceberg. Only when we invert the iceberg will we begin to see not only the depth and breadth of teachers’ work in today’s world but it’s direct impact and influence on student learning.