Well it’s the start of a new year in Australian schools and this is a busy time for students and teachers. Apart from getting to know perhaps a new teacher or new classmates, students will also be getting ready for new learning. The first week or two at school are usually a time for teachers to assess what prior knowledge students are bringing and what might be their next steps in learning. Understanding students possible strengths and potential weaknesses regarding content is only one part of the assessment picture though.
- How do your students feel about themselves as learners?
- How do they feel about mathematics?
- What do they think mathematics is?
- What about mathematics do they want to learn more about or find interesting?
These questions are more about student attitudes, beliefs and thinking than about the content teachers might be preparing to teach. These questions are possibly the most important ones to ask though. Our job as teachers of mathematics is to guide and support students on their learning journey in mathematics. However, if they don’t get it, don’t like it, or don’t care to know more about it, then all the planning in the world won’t assist student in learning.
I think it’s important to leave a good first impression on students regarding mathematics. If the first experience they have in your classroom this year about mathematics, is a pen and paper assessment, what message does this send to students about mathematics itself? Our first few lessons should be about curiosity, wonder, play, experience, inquiry, questioning, thinking, discussing, and exploring. Showing students that mathematics is figure-out-able (a term coined by @pwharris) and allowing them to have success early in the year may help foster positive attitudes towards mathematics. When we go straight into assessment, for students who have struggled in the past with mathematics, this may just confirm their own lack of self-efficacy.
So what should we do then, to start the year right with mathematics?
- Make it fun! Play maths games – anything with dice, cards or dominoes are good for physical and cognitive engagement (see Paul Swan’s resources, Michael Minas’ lovemaths, ATM’s Maths Snack videos, or check out some games from the NSW Department of Education)
- Find out what they think – In a study conducted by Anna Dahlgren Johansson & Lovisa Sumpter (2010) titled Children’s conceptions about mathematics and mathematics education, one question asked students to draw a picture of themselves doing mathematics. This is a great question that can reveal what students think about both mathematics, and themselves as learners. The paper can be accessed here.
- Explore maths in other contexts – tessellation art, mathematical art lessons, name tag art, Mondrian art puzzles, learning maths through life, #sidewalkmath is a good one to check out on Twitter too!
Take a break from the screen and try a healthy Maths Snack. These free Videos contain activities, puzzles & games designed to increase maths understanding, 2 minutes long, they are ideal for pupils working from home. https://t.co/JYWwdosOvY #primary #secondary #mathematics pic.twitter.com/t1WTtcfPZB— Teachers of Maths (@ATMMathematics) January 31, 2021
Allowing students to explore and play with the mathematics itself within assessment, teaching, and learning experiences supports them to be confident and capable mathematics learners. When talking about young learners, Anthony and Walshaw make the following statement about the importance of the balance between spontaneous learning and deliberate teaching:
“There is now strong evidence that the most effective settings for young learners provide a balance between opportunities for children to benefit from teacher-initiated group work and freely chosen, yet potentially instructive, play activities” (Anthony, & Walshaw, (2007), Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics, p 2.).
Although this quote is in reference to young students, it could be true for all learners of mathematics. The New Zealand Education Review Office’s page that the Anthony and Walshaw quote was mentioned, add that when spontaneous learning is part of mathematics learning “children experience a curriculum in which mathematics is included in meaningful contexts that recognise their strengths and interests and build on these.” (para. 9). This sentiment is echoed in the NSW mathematics syllabus that says that teachers make decisions about areas of content and adjustments “based on the needs, interests [emphasis added], and abilities of students” (NESA, 2012, p. 32).
Interests, wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend more time on what students are interested in during mathematics lessons. I wonder if it is teaching through interests that students’ abilities are realised and their needs are met?
Anthony, G. and Walshaw, M. (2007). Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics/Pāngarau Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration [BES], p2. Retrieved from www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/2515/5951
A guide to children’s early mathematics learning (NZ Education Review Office)
Dahlgren Johansson, A., & Sumpter, L. (2010). Children’s conceptions about mathematics and mathematics education. In MAVI-16.