Shifting the maths mindset in Victorian schools

​​​For students to meaningfully learn any mathematical skill or acquire any mathematical proficiency, they need to find it important enough and to value it. Teachers play a key role in cultivating these values while teaching the content, thereby engaging students in the learning of mathematics.

Leading a workshop at the 2018 Regional Leadership Conference, Assoc Prof Wee Tiong Seah explored the values related to mathematics, mathematics education, and education in general which students learn in the mathematics classroom.

This workshop took participants through unpacking, collaborating and co-constructing a way forward in re-shaping a student's perception of mathematics, so that school leaders and teachers could empower students to continue with mathematics learning throughout their schooling years and beyond.

'One of the concerns we often come up against is "when are we ever going to use this [mathematics]?"' said Wee Tiong.

'Another concern that we would no doubt notice is around student disengagement, which normally kicks in at around Grade 5.

And finally, social desirability, as you don't want to be heard saying in public, "I like maths".'

'These concerns have refused to go away despite various initiatives being introduced over the years. We really need to look for a new approach to solving these age-old problems of relevance, disengagement, and social desirability'.

A drive to learn is built through confidence and understanding

Teachers can often reflect that their education is not just through the communication of subject-specific content, but also the combination of this knowledge with the emotions and mindsets we develop in relation to the subject.

'Affectively, we often foster in the child confidence, interests, attitudes and beliefs which have a positive effect on their learning. But there is still something missing.'

'For me, if a child does not value what she or he is learning, then this mindset becomes a bottleneck that is restricting the child to assess all the cognitive and effective skills that we teach so well.'

'It's like the phrase, 'you can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink'. After all, if the horse does not want to drink, if it does not see the purpose of doing it; nothing will happen.'

'You know how children learn numbers so that you can teach that well, but we often don't explicitly address the ideas students have about why they need to know this information.'

 'In essence, the drive to learn is very important.'

Teaching values, not just curriculum

Wee Tiong explains that it's very important for teachers to find out what's important to their students, that is, what they value. These are some of the things that drive their motivation in mathematics and mathematics learning.

'In fact, as teachers, we teach values consciously or otherwise. We teach children to be honest, we teach them to be fair, to support each other, to be hard-working and to be creative. We also model many of these to our students.'

'We can also teach maths pedagogical values. Values which help them to learn, in the sense that they help them to see a purpose in learning the specific content or proficiency.'

What values are important to maths educators in Victoria

Wee Tiong provided examples of values that teachers in his research have been emphasising in their maths classes. These included convictions such as: efficiency, mystery and fluency, and approaches such as group work, practice and application.

'And we see this valuing being modelled every day. For example, through open-ended questions we emphasise that there can be many possible answers to any problem, and we also inculcate in children to be efficient in their mathematics response.'

'We teach children the importance of practice through the homework exercises we give.

'We also teach them to be fluent, so that when they approach a new situation they know what concepts and skills to activate.

'But equally important is that we [the school community] align our values, so that the values we bring to class are in harmony, so that we can better achieve our common goal.'

Aligning values in your school

A step-by-step approach to identifying and modifying values

Wee Tiong explains his approach to leading change within schools, through the alignment of what teachers and students value in mathematics teaching and learning respectively. The first step of this intervention strategy is to understand what teachers and students disagree with most and perhaps to understand why.

'The aim is to modify what students value or what teachers value in mathematics pedagogy, so that there are broad alignment to allow for productive work and meaningful learning.'

'Just like any organisation, you always begin the process by surveying the students' values. Then as the teacher or the principal, you identify some values that you want to reshape, which might be in conflict with the school community.

'The second step is to write down in prose, or in an essay or a journal, why they should value one of the attributes which had been identified as important or relevant but which the students do not generally emphasise. For example, if you have students who are not valuing practice, you ask them to write why practice is important and useful.'

'Then, in small groups, students are encouraged to declare their views and to share with their peers the arguments they had put forth in their own writing.'

'In the final phase, students will be given a task in which they understand that what they were saying was starting to have an impact on their peers.'

'Over time you will see the students begin to shift in their mindset as to what they ought to value.'

This approach was trialled with the workshop participants. It is based on the concepts of self-persuasion and reframing in psychology.

'The teacher's role here is hugely important as they are crucial when asking the students what to write. The teacher will want to choose a topic or topics that the students will end up valuing.

'Another key aspect of this approach is that at no time should students feel that they are being forced to write and/or to share. From a student's perspective, the absence of any external justification is a necessary condition for successful adjustment in valuing.

Expert presentations in education

Wee Tiong's presentation was one of many talks given at the 2018 Regional Leadership Conferences, which gave school leaders an insight into leading evidence-based approaches in education.

To watch the full presentation and to learn more about shifting the values of your school community thereby cultivating mathematical mindsets, see Shifting the mathematical mindset of students: Enhancing engagement

Supporting FISO priorities: Excellence in teaching and learning

Effective teaching is the single biggest determinant of student improvement in the school. Teachers not only have a direct impact on student achievement but also student engagement and motivation for learning.

Wee Tiong's research explores how teachers can help their school community to value the educational opportunities provided in the classroom, so that these values stimulate purposeful learning of mathematics, providing for success in later life. For more information about this priority, see: Excellence in teaching and learning