Recent announcements that the federal government is mandating literacy and numeracy tests for graduates entering the teaching profession from 2017 have been met with relief from some and trepidation from others. In this article, I will share my observations of attitudes and abilities of the current and emerging teacher workforce, which might shed light on that trepidation regarding numeracy.
My experience in various aspects of mathematics education includes over 30 years as a secondary teacher and, more recently, as a researcher and lecturer within the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. In the former capacity, I often heard parents start parent–teacher–student conferences with, ‘I don’t expect her to do well at maths, I was never any good at it either’. At other times, in counselling senior students about VCE subject choices the general tone of, ‘Well, I don’t want to do any more maths than I have to because I’m going to be a primary/history/languages teacher’ was pervasive amongst those who had the capability, but not the explicit incentive, to continue at higher-level mathematics.
Fast-forward to my time at Melbourne Graduate School of Education conducting focus group data collection for a research project investigating teachers’ statistical literacy. The initial phase of the research involved investigating attitudes towards using — and the ability to correctly interpret — the statistical graphs and tables of Victorian students’ NAPLAN data. In conducting the focus group sessions for 150 randomly selected Victorian primary and secondary teachers, most of whom were not mathematics teachers themselves, my colleagues and I were struck by the number of teachers who displayed clear aversion to these statistical representations. While we felt some of the negative attitudes were based on a bias against NAPLAN in general, some voiced disconnect with anything mathematical — ‘This has nothing to do with me’.
At the heart of our motivation to bridge the knowledge gap — which was evident in a number of these teachers — was our recognition that every teacher, whether he or she likes it or not, is working in a data-driven profession. Teachers encounter mathematical and statistical concepts constantly as they work with increasingly complex assessment data sets, which drive the curriculum-planning decisions in their learning teams, within their school communities and across the nation. So where are the professional development opportunities for these busy educators to improve their mathematical knowledge and comfort in dealing with concepts that inform their role? This is a very large question indeed — perhaps a classic ‘wicked’ problem. It must be noted that the end product of our research was a set of 10 online tutorials (see http://usingassessmentdata.vcaa.vic.edu.au). It is instructive that the most informative (based on verbal feedback from trial users) is a tutorial that associates the numbers (test scores) with caricatures of the fictitious 30 students who had achieved those scores. The data was personalised and thus teachers felt more connected to it.
Fast-forward again to the rising popularity of STEM education in primary and secondary schools, and efforts to incorporate STEM into teacher education courses. The challenge is for integration of mathematics into the wider school curriculum, and for all teachers to take opportunities to identify and exploit mathematical ideas and concepts as they occur throughout their teaching. Of course, there is an urgent need to assist those graduate teachers to gain the requisite pedagogical content knowledge and to actually believe that ‘mathematics is everywhere’. Could it be that efforts to do so might also serve to encourage the broader society to view mathematics as an endeavour that doesn’t just occur in mathematics classrooms under the control of mathematics teachers? And how might we develop and deliver a societal PD to those who are self-proclaimed mathematical failures? We may just see a time when it is socially awkward to claim disconnection to this most beautiful form of thinking and knowing.
By Roger Wander
Roger is a Mathematics Specialist and researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.