Lifting student achievement in mathematics

DR BOBBIE HUNTER - Associate Professor, Institute of Education

Low-decile schools throughout New Zealand have an increasingly diverse student body, disaffected by mathematics education. A study investigating the impact of culturally responsive teaching methods may be about to turn that around.

A change is in the air for the New Zealand education system, as student-centred learning approaches and shared classroom spaces become more widespread. But while schools have long allowed students to work at their own pace in group settings, many students, particularly those of Māori and Pāsifika origin, are failing to gain proficiency in certain subjects.

Building on research begun in 2003, researchers at Massey University undertook a study to find out how a new child-centred and culturally responsive approach to mathematics could make a difference. In 2014, they embarked on a Ministry of Education-funded project to explore how culturally responsive teaching methods could influence the mathematical disposition and achievement outcomes of diverse learners (Māori and Pāsifika students) in high poverty areas in urban Auckland.

The result was the development of “communities of mathematical inquiry”, led by Massey’s Dr Bobbie Hunter, a researcher, academic and New Zealand-born Cook Islander.

The approach drew on a wide range of research. In collaboration with other Massey colleagues (including Professor Glenda Anthony), it included introducing new teaching methods within the University’s mathematics methods courses, and having the graduate students rehearse these in the classroom, where the teacher’s role is to design problems that build on students’ existing proficiencies, interests and experiences. This research project in the University setting was funded by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research’s Teaching, Learning, Research Initiative (TLRI).

The need to attend to, interpret and respond appropriately to students’ mathematical thinking is a core pedagogical skill that needs to be consciously taught in any teacher preparation programme.


Traditional role turned on its head

In Developing Mathematical Inquiry community classrooms, the traditional role of the teacher providing instruction is turned on its head. Lesson preparations take considered thought as teachers try to anticipate, ahead of time, all the possible approaches students might take, including possible errors. Knowing these helps the teachers clear roadblocks in students’ thinking and take their ideas forward.

“It is not their role to simply give clues to find the right answer—the entire class must go on the learning journey together,” Dr Hunter says. “The teachers were encouraged to be self-aware of their role and reconsider the power base in the classroom.

In contrast to a typical classroom, students hold the responsibility to not only be active participants but also to acknowledge that their peers all have differing levels of mathematics comprehension and different contributions to make. Their role is to explain the mathematical reasoning of any ideas they share, and when they themselves do not fully understand an idea introduced by another student, they need to ask questions. Over time, they learn that they are able to be more successful when they work collaboratively, and that to be successful in solving mathematical problems they need to talk and ask a lot of questions.

Not unlike the live classroom setting, the teacher-education environment was structured to be collaborative and agile. Feedback from pre-service teachers has been positive, including comments on how it was a safe place to overcome any nervousness they were feeling, that being critiqued during teaching delivery helped them hone their craft, and that the process allowed them to dive deep into mathematical concepts and explore possible misconceptions.

“The need to attend to, interpret and respond appropriately to students’ mathematical thinking is a core pedagogical skill that needs to be consciously taught in any teacher preparation programme,” Dr Hunter says.

Surprising insights

The two-year TLRI study developed new teaching techniques and provided some surprising insights into how much teacher educators need to learn to model effective teaching of instructional activities, and the identification of core practices around professional noticing of students’ thinking.

The researchers deepened their knowledge about the craft of teaching and found the mathematics-teaching rehearsals provided insights they would have never gained otherwise, such as a teacher’s rationale for a particular approach, thereby allowing them to adapt their instruction and provide support accordingly. The practicalities of implementing inquiry-led mathematics education require an agile framework supportive of teachers’ needs, and teacher educators with specialist skills.

The success of both studies has researchers excited. They found that developing mathematical inquiry communities works particularly well with Pāsifika children, because it draws on their cultural values such as working together to solve problems and sharing knowledge. In fact, the Ministry of Education found that children learning what has been called Bobbie maths have made more than two years of progress in 12 months. As a result, it has allocated significant funds to expand the programme.

The vision for the future of mathematics education is for it to be learner-centred and culturally sensitive. Dr Hunter and her team see the huge potential in what they have uncovered and hope their method of teaching will be extended to low-decile schools throughout New Zealand, and will influence a range of curriculum areas.

Project details

Funders Ministry of Education
Dates 2014 to 2016