With the ongoing discussion about teacher performance pay versus professional pay heating up, I was interested to hear at a recent conference some of the passionate views of teachers supporting these initiatives.
I don’t particularly want to get into the nitty-gritty of this complex situation other than to say that, if performance is measured using standardised testing programs (NAPLAN, etc), then are we not encouraging a system of teaching towards a test? And if Mathematics is one of the subjects assessed using these systems, how can we ensure that we don’t move too far away from the power of relevant, conceptual, inquiry-based practices?
Personally, I like Mathematics and the model of the world that it presents. I find it a rewarding challenge to develop learning programs that allow each student in my class to explore their own viewpoint of the world through the lens of numbers. I also love the moments when students realise that Mathematics is just a model, and not always representative of truth. (See this post by Paul Salomon for a wonderful post on real student learning – and getting it ‘wrong’!)
In my class, I have just completed an inquiry-based task that asked students to consider the following question; “Does Melbourne have enough water?”
This question prompted two and a half weeks of investigation and testing. Students covered topics as diverse as capacity, significant figures, percentages, decimals, exponents, rates of change – just to name a few. The developed their calculator-using skills and had to carefully think through their rationale before answering the question in light of what they had researched. No two answers were the same because no two students had made the same set of assumptions. One student has determined that Melbourne could accommodate just under 100 million people if each person used less than 10 litres per day – as many do in Africa, he pointed out.
So, to my initial question – What does the future of Maths teaching look like? My experience of older students is that they dislike Mathematics, finding it too difficult, the teachers disengaging and the method that it is delivered in not particularly relevant to their lives. Despite reassurances that they are capable of being successful at and – heaven forbid – enjoying mathematics, they depart senior maths classes at an alarming rate.
Have we caused students to view Mathematics as irrelevant? Considering the ubiquity of the Mathematical processes – I doubt it. Students know which Mathematical processes are important/relevant to their current lives. I think that the more-likely scenario is that, over the years, students have had such poor experiences of Mathematics that they have become disillusioned. If this is were indeed to be the case, I can’t really blame them for switching off – I would find two worked examples on the white board and then 15 practice questions with 15 more for homework as boring as watching paint dry!
If we are to re-engage students with Mathematics, I believe we need to be constantly and consistently striving toward tasks that are collaborative, problem-based and relevant. This does not mean that explicit teaching goes out the window. Rather, that explicit teaching should support the immediate needs of the students as pertaining to the task that they’re working on. Mathematics should be viewed as a cross-curricula activity – applied physics, technology, design, fashion, geography, the list goes on. Students can – and should be – engaged with Mathematics through their interests, rather than always through the textbook.