In April, a report by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) found that while 71-73% of Year 12 students have been enrolled in one or more mathematics subjects during the past decade, enrolments plummeted in 2020 to just 66%.
One glaring problem that has been impacting on outcomes is that a nearly a quarter of Year 8 students are taught by out-of-field teachers.
However, a new paper by the Centre for Independent Studies says a number of harmful myths are dominating the teaching of maths – and dragging student outcomes down in the process.
Students’ maths learning isn’t optimised
In Myths That Undermine Maths Teaching, authors Sarah R. Powell, Elizabeth M. Hughes and Corey Peltier write that this means students’ maths learning isn’t optimised and teachers’ time is not used as effectively as it could be.
“Myths have become so commonplace because teachers are regularly misinformed about how students learn and what works in the classroom,” Powell said.
According to Australia’s student achievement in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), outcomes have declined more steeply and consistently than any other country, other than Finland, with the decline being most prominent in mathematics.
“Helping teachers to substitute faddish and evidence-free practices with proven, effective teaching will lift outcomes of students. Teachers must become more research-literate so that they can better combat misunderstandings about teaching practice,” Powell, Hughes and Peltier wrote.
“This requires improving teacher preparation as well as helping more teachers to help themselves through professional development.”
Among the researchers’ suggestions are teaching explicitly; focusing mathematics instruction on building mathematics skills; overtly connecting conceptual and procedural knowledge; checking student background knowledge, such as understanding of numbers and place value; and teaching with evidence-based practices first.
In addition, rather than offering true inquiry, Powell and Hughes suggest providing modified inquiry learning with built-in scaffolds and support for student success.
‘There’s a good deal of misunderstanding about what top teaching looks like’
Glenn Fahey, CIS program director of education policy, says there is “a real appetite” to lift the quality of maths teaching — both for in-field and out-of-field teachers.
“It has to be conceded that maths has been the poor cousin of reading when it comes to guiding evidence-based practice,” Fahey told The Educator.
“While the science of reading has truly produced an education revolution, the science of maths learning has lagged, but its time has come.”
Fahey says the supply side (building up the relevant research base) has come a long way over the years.
“The demand side is strong too…but, sadly, too many teachers will start their careers exposed to very little evidence-based guidance about how to teach maths well.”
Fahey pointed to a 2021 CIS audit of maths education degrees, which found almost all did not provide sufficient opportunity for teachers to know how to teach explicitly.
“There’s a good deal of misunderstanding — even misinformation — about what top teaching looks like,” he said.
“There’s often an inverse relationship between the popularity of an educational theory and its connexion to evidence. Just because it’s featured in a TED talk or in a book does not guarantee a practice or theory about learning has any basis in reality.”
More than likely, says Fahey, “it’s a fad that’s untested, hypothetical, or unworkable”.
“Mindset theory and productive struggle are two good examples of concepts that are seductive to teachers, but are largely discredited as practices that teachers should actually employ,” he said.
“We need more schools and more teachers to become more research-literate. There are some champions out there who provide consistent and highly effective explicit instruction.”
Fahey said that as more educators are presented with the evidence, it’s his hope more will be converted.
“Much of the educational policy oxygen is taken up by macro issues – like funding, status of the profession, class sizes, and so on – and too little of it goes to micro issues – like providing opportunity to improve practice inside the classroom.”