Karen Morrison and Lisa Greenstein
According to Oxford University Press’ 2021 survey of maths educators, a massive 84% of teachers say they have changed how they teach maths in the last year or more. This situation has been exacerbated by the impact of the global pandemic, but maths pedagogy is continually shifting as learner needs and resources evolve. Here, we reflect on the changes in maths pedagogy over the last 10 years and explore how educators can now make maths more accessible for all.
Ten years ago, the buzzword in maths teaching was problem-solving. Teachers already had a sense of wanting to move away from drill and practice. They wanted to move towards giving students the tools to solve problems in creative ways, but there wasn’t a lot of commonly-used vocabulary around how to do that. This vocabulary issue was complicated further recently by the COVID-19 pandemic as 75% of educational professionals stated that school closures had impacted children’s understanding of mathematical language (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Some students struggle to visualise and communicate ideas in written or oral forms, and there are some students who don’t understand the task instructions (Lyttle, 2021). This lack of understanding is more profound with EAL students or those who are neruodiverse, such as with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Therefore, there is a need to not only plan maths lessons, but the specific language within those lessons, so we say what is mathematically meaningful (Prescott et. al., 2020).
Today, we (teachers) have so much more awareness of what it means to think mathematically. We talk about questions with an open middle. We talk about exploring mistakes. We’ve come such a long way from agitating over whether kids could remember the 7 times table.
The biggest change in the way we approach maths now is the shift towards asking big, open-ended questions from the beginning – before we teach kids a given algorithm or formula. You don’t want to start off by telling them how to do something, and then ask them to do it. You want to start off by posing a question that they can genuinely grapple with.
Rather than simply focusing on questions and answers, it’s now important to have wider conversations about maths. For example, by asking learners to explain how they arrived at an answer and discuss this with them (Sylva et. Al 2020). We need to create opportunities for rich interactions that involve lasting activities where children work together to solve problems, giving learners the thinking time they need to develop their own ideas and discuss them openly (Williams, 2021).
Today, we need to pose questions which include mixed units, reasoning and thinking, justifying your answer, and solving a problem that can have different solutions – and yet it doesn’t seem frightening or off-putting. This allows for everyone to feel included and encourages them to share their ideas.
Teachers are talking about growth mindset more than ever, and embracing this attitude in classrooms is slowly becoming the norrm. A growth mindset, put simply, is the realisation that there is no such thing as “good at maths”.
Not knowing the answer is part of the learning process and in fact, research shows that the brain can only make new connections when it experiences challenge (Wathall,2021). The human brain has incredible plasticity and learning is a process of stretching ourselves through the struggle of doing something that seems difficult – impossible even – at first. Children learn that this sense of struggle is ok. That it’s fine (and necessary even) to find maths difficult. The difficulty is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign of learning.
In order to encourage a growth mindset in pupils, teachers must utilize inquiry-based learning to promote debate, problem-solving and critical thinking to help build understanding. Allowing learners to work through problems with their friends can also make them more engaged and help to remove any stigma about struggling. Furthermore, high-ceiling, low-threshold activities allow every learner to demonstrate what they can do, without worrying about what they can’t do (Wathall, 2021).
Put simply, “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies and input from others) have a growth mindset” (Dweck, 2016).
The interventions carried out with struggling students in disadvantaged communities have shown that a more flexible approach and questions that genuinely make students think increase engagement, and lead to improved academic performance (Boaler, 2020).
When educational authors develop a primary maths course for children, they are now thinking about how best to start every child (and level of learner) on a lifelong journey with maths. They cover traditional bases of number sense, sorting, measuring, identifying shapes. Making the link between numerals and quantity is still, and always will be, essential for young learners’ understanding and they need access to many opportunities to experience and explore this (Williams, 2021). But authors also celebrate exploration and investigation; developing a sense of playfulness and fun, as well as a willingness to struggle when things get tricky. These things are often the intention of today’s mathematical education authors – to introduce challenge and struggle.
Another wonderful aspect of developing maths content today is social media. Just following a few hashtags – #mathteachersofinstagram, #mathsadventure, #numberchat, or #iteachmath – can turn up such a wealth of information and knowledge.
Teachers are having conversations in these spaces on how to cultivate a growth mindset in the classroom (Wathall, 2021); they are sharing moments of challenge or success from their own classroom experience; educators are sharing online resources and conferences and courses. Social media has its detractors, but ten years ago, teachers just didn’t have access to all this wonderful shared knowledge and experience.
Maths teaching in international schools is continually changing. But now, more than ever, teachers are focused on challenging traditional approaches to teaching maths, by changing perceptions of it in order to build curiosity, joy, and wonder in order to celebrate growth mindset and reduce anxiety. Developing and practicing behaviours such as problem solving, collaboration, and resilience will only continue to gain importance and focus in the years to come (Neale, 2021).
Introducing Nelson Maths
International Education experts, Karen Morrison and Lisa Greenstein have combined their knowledge and experience in the creation of the new edition of Nelson Maths – a rigorous, whole-school programme for teaching and learning maths from early years through to the end of primary education, from Oxford University Press. Written for learners across the world, it enables all children to start and sustain a lifelong journey with maths. The new edition includes a brand-new look and feel, vocabulary support and activities that prompt engagement with the latest mathematical thinking, such as problem solving and growth mindset. Find out more about the new Nelson Maths at: www.oxfordprimary.com/nelsonmaths
Bibliography & further reading
Boaler, J. (2016) Mathematical Mindsets, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.
Greenstein and Morrison. (2022) “Making maths accessible for all: Behind the scenes with our writers”. Oxford University press [blog article] via: https://educationblog.oup.com/international/nelson-behind-the-scenes [Accessed 18/02/22].
Lyttle, D. (2021) “Lessons from the pandemic: Putting our findings into practice”. [Oxford University Press: Online Article] via www.oxfordprimary.com/mathswhitepaper [Accessed 18/02/2022]
Mitra, S. (2012). Beyond the Hole in the Wall. Ted books.
Mitra, S., & Crawley, E. (2014). Effectiveness of self-organised learning by children: Gateshead experiments. Journal of Education and Human Development, 3(3), 79-88.
Oxford University Press. (2021) “Maths and the impact of Covid-19: survey of international teachers”, Maths survey of UK teachers, Oxford University Press 2021.
Oxford University Press. (2021) “Preparing for the future: Using curiosity and creativity to boost confidence in maths. A whitepaper for international educators”. [Whitepaper] via www.oxfordprimary.com/mathswhitepaper [Accessed 18/02/2022]
Rowland, T (2008). The purpose, design and use of examples in the teaching of elementary mathematics. Educational studies in mathematics 69/2, 149-163.
Williams, H. (2021) “Building solid foundations”. [Oxford University Press: Online Article] via www.oxfordprimary.com/mathswhitepaper [Accessed 18/02/2022]
Wathall, J. (2016). Concept-Based Mathematics: Teaching for Deep Understanding in Secondary Classrooms (1 edition). Thousan Oaks California, Corwin.
Wathall, J. (2021). “Develop a growth mindset”. [Oxford University Press: Online Article] via www.oxfordprimary.com/mathswhitepaper [Accessed 18/02/2022]
Watson, A. (2021). Care in Mathematics Education: Alternative Educational Spaces and Practices. Springer Nature.