Maths anxiety cripples students’ ability to participate and progress in class. Forty percent of students begin Year 7 already behind in mathematics. The number of students going on to complete advanced maths in Years 11 and 12 and at university is decreasing.
Yet a projected 75% of future jobs will rely on STEM skills, notably mathematics.
The situation we are presented with by this data appears bleak and overwhelming in its contrast between present problems and future need. More and more it seems that the ‘traditional’ model of teaching mathematics, where students learn topics from a textbook, with a focus on following procedures to get a correct answer coupled with regular testing, does not work. Students who fall behind struggle to catch up. Often, despite a teacher’s best efforts, they remain uninspired, confused and ultimately detached from the utility and beauty of mathematics.
The maths teacher here is not just a subject teacher, but a motivator, cajoler, story-teller and enforcer. They are someone who knows the needs of each student sitting before them and who constructs lessons to specially suit those needs while staying true to the curriculum, school policies, educational theories on best practice and their own principles as a professional.
It is undeniable that we expect a lot of our teachers. Every day we burden them with multitudes of decisions, always underpinned by accountability to the range of stakeholders we would more commonly associate being faced by a politician.
Refreshingly, change is not only possible, but is already underway. My school is one of a cluster around the country that is participating in the Reframing Mathematical Futures project run through RMIT. It is an example of how universities can successfully work with schools to support teachers and impact student outcomes.
A key feature of this project is a Numeracy program that addresses important concepts that students often miss in the transition to high school. This year we have tweaked how we run Numeracy to make it work most effectively for our context. For one 75 minute lesson per week, students work on activities that each step of the way build their knowledge and understanding of a big idea in mathematics known as ‘multiplicative thinking‘. The activities are not just about following procedures, but ask students to create, fold, draw, define, reason and reflect.
The Numeracy program works for teachers because it allows us to collaborate closely with each other using tasks that we know are appropriately targeted. Week by week we are able to see progress occurring. At fortnightly meetings, instead of discussing unimportant administrative decisions or issues unrelated to learning, we talk about the students. We pour over samples of work, come up with plans for students whose progress is slow and celebrate the successes we can see happening each lesson.
For students, the Numeracy program works because in every activity they complete they know they are learning and developing new skills. When our students finish a task, they cross it off on a chart (visibly getting that indicator of progression). Students then individually get feedback from a teacher who tells them what they’ve done well and their next steps for improvement. More than that though, students work in groups, help each other out and enjoy what they do.
I know this because there are students I only see for Numeracy, who regularly come up to me in the yard, excited about the next class. At the end of Term 2, when asked what the best things were about the program, students weren’t negative or cynical, but gave responses like “working as a team”, “solving hard problems”, “the activities we get” and “very helpful teachers”.
I work in an outer Melbourne suburb that people might typically associate with disadvantage and poor learning outcomes. Instead, every week I am witnessing students who are curious, energised and on their way to becoming our nation’s better mathematical thinkers.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Numeracy program or seeing it in action at Michaela’s school, please comment below and she will be in touch.