It’s that time of year again when many schools are analysing NAPLAN data and formulating plans in response. Of course, NAPLAN is only one source of information, however the release of such data does serve to focus schools’ attention on questions like, ‘How are our students going?’ and ‘How do we know?’ and ‘Where to next?’
Zooming out from a classroom and school setting to a broader context, it’s also a good time to pause to reflect on how Australian primary maths is tracking on the whole.
Funding is up but performance is down: we need to face facts and act now
Recently (July 2018), the Office of the Chief Scientist released an Occasional Paper entitled, ‘Improving the Mathematics Performance of Australia’s Students.’ In it, authors Phillippa Smith, Matthew Ladewig and Roslyn Prinsley outline the current state of affairs regarding the teaching and learning of mathematics in Australian schools. They describe as “a widely shared concern” Australia’s recent performance trends – all of them poor – across a variety of domestic and international assessment measures, including NAPLAN. This is in spite of the fact that government funding per student has increased.
A number of findings in the report are particularly worrisome and have wide implications for not just what mathematical content we teach but, crucially, HOW we teach it.
Of particular significance, particularly in light of context of my current work in schools, the paper notes:
- the performance gap between students from different demographics
- a growing and significant tail of underperformance, and
- that there was a gap of one-and-a-half years between students from metropolitan and remote areas.
Improvement is possible: we can do this!
On a more positive note, the paper presents evidence that schools CAN “turn around stalling mathematics results”. The authors include a range of evidence-informed recommendations as to how this can occur by highlighting the key findings of a study commissioned by the Office of the Chief Scientist led by the University of Tasmania (UTAS) to explore the factors that contributed to the outstanding improvement in these schools.
The key findings from the study were that:
- 100% of case study schools had senior leadership who understood and valued mathematics, and a mathematics leader who had input into school policy decisions
- 94% of case study schools had in-school professional learning communities, and 73% had had formal, in-school professional learning
- 90% of case study schools had teachers who like mathematics and were enthusiastic in their teaching
- 87% of case study schools used data to monitor individual students’ progress
- 87% of case study schools had a classroom focus on mastery (i.e. developing conceptual understanding) rather than just procedural fluency.
The study was led by Adjunct Associate Professor Rosemary Callingham of UTAS who was the Keynote Speaker at Anita Chin’s 2018 Annual Primary Mathematics Conference. Given in front of a sold-out audience of 200 delegates, the keynote address was grounded in this study, and the full presentation (25 slides) has been uploaded, with permission, to the Resources section of the Anita Chin Mathematics Consultancy website, here: Let’s Talk About it. Secrets of Schools Successful in Mathematics.
So improvement is possible. Let’s make it probable. How? Effect change at a whole-school level
Enacting a process for whole school change however, is not easy. Sometimes, in the busyness of the school day, week, term or year, advice or findings – no matter how worthwhile – such as, “Australia’s schools can turn around mathematics results in two years”, can appear to teachers as being shallow rhetoric or motherhood statements that have little real impact.
Many schools find themselves responding to stalling data by focusing too heavily on content and advising teachers to ‘spend more time’ on particular syllabus substrands or content areas in the belief that this will fix the problem.
What really needs to be addressed in many schools is the culture of learning as it applies to the subject of mathematics
When schools have time to determine their whole school beliefs about the teaching and learning of mathematics they can then align these beliefs with a range of research-informed practices – productive pedagogical practices for the subject of maths. Such practices will, necessarily, be different from other subject areas.
The desire to assist schools in navigating such conversations is something that led Anita Chin and I to develop a new framework: The Whole-School Approach to Mathematics K-6 Model. Our framework, launched in June 2018, correlates perfectly with the findings in the Occasional Paper.
Importantly, the framework – and its associated suite of resources – helps to guide schools as they determine where disconnects might exist between what we know about high quality teaching and learning of mathematics, and the reality of each school’s context.
For instance, one of the key points the Occasional Paper refers to is the key role of the Principal:
“Principals set the tone in their schools, and with the right strategic focus they can drive a culture that supports mathematics learning.”
One of the essential elements from our framework captures this. We believe that in schools where learning and teaching cultures improve student maths outcomes, Leaders Lead Maths. But what does this look like in practical terms?
How can Leaders Lead Maths? Here’s just one way
Establish a core group of dedicated maths leaders and champions, supported by the Principal, who mentor colleagues and catalyse change by:
- modeling lessons
- providing feedback to their peers
- sourcing high-quality opportunities for professional learning.
Anita and I agree that all children are entitled to experience the joy of maths and that teachers, more than anyone else, play a critical role in developing students’ mathematical identities. The Occasional Paper released by the Office of the Chief Scientist therefore, is a ‘call to arms’.
All schools are challenged to respond.
A call to arms: And here is your armoury
The Whole-School Approach to Mathematics K-6 framework helps schools to respond by navigating these important whole school considerations.
Here’s another takeaway strategy:
Want your school to demonstrate high performance in mathematics?
Invest in time to develop a shared set of shared beliefs with goals that:
- take a whole-school approach to enhancing mathematical outcomes
- establish policies and structures that encourage collaboration among teachers
- introduce professional learning programs to support teacher
- involve parents and the wider community
- enable school leaders and teachers to articulate what they teach and why they teach the way they do: to each other, to parents, to students. It is crucial that our beliefs about teaching mathematics are consistent with our beliefs about learning mathematics.
Our framework is already helping Australian primary schools move from ‘islands of good practice’ to a whole-school positive maths environment: where content, culture and classroom practice all work together to create consistent, high-quality maths teaching and learning.
If Australian primary mathematics was indeed given a report card, we wouldn’t have even taken it out of the schoolbag; it would still be rolling around with last week’s apple. Let’s turn this around, transform learning outcomes, and totally rethink the way we approach mathematics for the sake – and the success – of our teachers and students.
Want to find out more about the Whole School Approach Model? Contact myself or Anita Chin to discuss how it can take your school’s maths teaching to the next level.
Commonwealth of Australia. (2016). Nothing left to chance: characteristics of schools successful in mathematics. Report of the building an evidence base for best practice in mathematics education project. Retrieved from http://www.utas.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/1094475/BPME-Report.pdf
Office of the Chief Scientist. (2018). Improving the Mathematics Performance of Australia’s Students. Retrieved from https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2018/07/occasional-paper-improving-the-mathematics-performance-of-australias-students/
Recommended further reading:
Seeley, C. (2016). Building a math-positive culture: How to Support Great Math Teaching in Your School. Alexandria VA: Hawker Brownlow Education
Siemon, D., Beswick, K., Brady, K., Clark, J., Faragher, R., & Warren, E. (2015). Teaching Mathematics: Foundations to middle years. 2nd Edition. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press.
Or, see the Resources section of the Anita Chin Mathematics Consultancy website.
TIM WAUGH is a practising Teacher Educator and mentors school leaders, curriculum coordinators and teachers at a classroom and whole school level. Tim is also a consultant and learning strategist with Anita Chin Mathematics Consultancy where he supports schools across NSW. Tim co-authored The Whole School Approach Model and with more than 25 years’ experience in Australian maths classrooms, is passionate about building the next generation of deep mathematical thinkers by empowering educators.