At my recent presentation in Auckland (Sept 2016), at the opening of the Centre for Research in Mathematics Education, I argued that it is often easy to see what we don’t agree with but very difficult to challenge those practices that align with our beliefs and our field. It has been my life’s work to rethink that practices in mathematics education that reproduce the status quo – the practices that contribute to the marginalisation of the already marginalised. We do need to ask ourselves why after more than 50 years of research, the social inequities in mathematics achievement have not been broken down. What is it that we are doing that is contributing to the on-going maintenance of inequality.
It is easy for us to question of the validity of a scheme such as Direct Instruction that is creeping into so many of our disadvantaged schools. The significant funding, for example, the promise of the Cape York Aboriginal Academy with $32m+ for 3 schools to bring about education reform and success for remote Indigenous learners is not yielding the outcomes that it promised (and claims). Reviews of the CYAA by ACER have shown that there are questionable outcomes or lack thereof and yet organisations such as the Good to Great Schools are responsible for extending it into more schools in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australian. Furthermore, the former CLP government in the Northern Territory had taken up direct instruction into 60 of its remote and very remote schools. Aboriginal Educational experts, such as Chris Sarra came out quite scathing of Direct Instruction and its implication in the student riots of Arukun – one of the Cape York Aboriginal Academy sites. It is quite easy for educational experts to see the flaws in this program and yet is continues to grow into more disadvantaged school despite its expense and lack of evidence of success.
In contrast, other programs in mathematics education – such as activities-based learning – which is promoted across schools by academics and consultants alike – is as equally problematic. I shared an example I observed in one remote school. The teacher was conducting a lesson where students used fly swats to hit answers on cue cards placed on the floor. A quick scan on google shows that there are many iterations of this activity for maths and English. Yet as I observed the lesson, I could see that the students were enjoying the activity but I could not work out the point of the lesson – was it subitising, or adding the dots on the flies’ wings, or something else. The teacher had a ‘fun’ activity but the mathematics was not being realised or unpacked. The activity itself was the activity. The children were engaged and enjoying the activity but it was questionable as to what mathematics they were learning. Teachers love to be given kit bags with activities they can implement in their classrooms but one needs to ask about the purpose of the activity – particularly what are the students learning mathematically. Yet this type of practice – using activities – in teacher learning sessions and professional learning activities is a very common and dominant form of professional learning. It is more difficult to challenge such practices in the field of mathematics as it can be a part of the cultural norms of professional learning in this field.
The large national study – Remote Numeracy – has shown some interesting findings. When I commenced the study, I had expected that I would be collating and collecting examples of what teachers did in the classroom – not dissimilar to the activities-based approach described above. But as the project has evolved many challenges have been thrown up that have caused a significant rethink of what makes for success in numeracy learning for remote and very remote Indigenous students. What is needed is a multi-level approach where the activities in the classroom are only a small part of what is making successful schools ‘successful’. One of the biggest catalysts for my rethinking of the field was that one school when approached to be in the study said that they were not even looking at their maths program at that stage as they had other issues that they were addressing and yet, without any focus on mathematics there results were improving. In two schools, the team at the school had focused on bringing about a cultural reform at the school – one was for the school to be a ‘happy place’ where students wanted to come; the other focused on student well-being and connection with the community. In both cases, no work had been taken to change mathematics and yet the flow on effect of the culture of the school impacted on mathematical performance. It was not just about increased attendance but a much more profound culture at the school. As such, it may be timely to rethink our practices in mathematics and challenge some of our internal thinking about mathematics practices (such as activities problem solving, investigations) that may be quality practices but are only a small part of the jigsaw of equity and improvement in learning.