Making maths meaningful

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 forSt Clare's Catholic Collegetunate 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.

5 thoughts on “Making maths meaningful

  1. Great article Greg. Thanks. A reminder of what maths teaching and learning can be. But sadly, NAPLAN

  2. Dear Greg,
    It is a high time and a right time to revamp the educational practices. The basic foundation in the pre-school and lower primary is very sad to say that there is no meaningful fruitful teaching so when these students come up to the high school, more than 80% of the students don’t show any passion for learning. It is not to blame the teachers in high school but we need to really think why students in Asian countries are much better than other developed countries in Maths because the system of teaching there also is different. Recently, I met a Year 12 student in St. Marys Senior High. She is a recent migrant from Turkey and she informed me that all of this curricula in Year 12 she learnt in Turkey in Year 10 itself and only her difficulty is English language. Recently a young boy in India finished his Engineering Degree at the age of 18 and now he has been accepted to do his Ph.D., in a reputable University in USA.

  3. Hi Greg,
    We have been one of the trial schools working with Peter over the past 2 years. It’s certainly a different approach and we worked with Year 5/6 students.

    Yes the conversation between students is quite different and we found ourselves needing to expand student vocabulary so that students had the conceptual language to use in these discussions.

    We also found teacher knowledge of when to use the enabling and extending prompts a challenge and one that we are still working on.

    We also deliberately created a 10 minute time for students to try and start the problem themselves before being allowed to collaborate – they called it in the land of the ZOC – zone of confusion.

    I must say we also tried to balance the two types of maths workshops calling them phase 1 (skill based workshop) and phase 2 (problem solving workshop) as sometimes students simply don’t have some of the skills to use to be able to start the or enter into the problem.

    We are back into the trail working with Peter this year with Year 4 students.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Great feedback as always Mark on how it applies both to teacher and student learning in your school. Like the idea of Zone of Confusion – this professional sharing helps build professional knowledge and capability.

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