Maths has long served as a foundation for helping us understanding the world and addressing real-life problems, but a growing body of research reveals a concerning trend: the performance and engagement of Australian students in this critical subject are declining.
Currently, one in five students starting high school at the age of 12 or 13 has the maths and English ability of children three years younger.
Complicating matters further, studies also reveal a slump in student enrolments, with research from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) showing Year 12 participation in higher-level mathematics dropping below 10% for the first time ever, to 9.2% (compared to 11.6% in 2008), and participation in intermediate mathematics to 17.6% (compared to 23.3% in 2008).
There are many factors contributing to this issue, among them high school teachers lacking sufficient training, time or teaching skill to help students with the basics that are meant to be mastered in primary school.
Currently, about half of Year 8 students in Australia are taught maths by teachers who majored in the subject, while nearly a quarter are taught by out-of-field teachers.
To tackle these challenges, education policymakers are in the process of implementing a ‘back to basics’ approach to maths teaching, investing in high-quality mathematics and numeracy professional learning and resources, and increasing the number of maths teachers in the workforce.
However, it is likely to be some time yet before the results of these initiatives trickle down into substantial improvements in students’ maths outcomes and engagement. In the meantime, important work is underway in universities, professional associations and education think tanks to help schools turn the tables.
Promoting a strengths-based approach to teaching maths
For its part, the Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education believes there is an important step schools can be taking to make a meaningful difference to the way students approach maths.
ACU researcher Dr Thorsten Scheiner says focusing on strengths in students’ mathematics work rather than their “weaknesses, shortcomings, and failures” is vital for effective teaching and learning of the subject.
Dr Scheiner designed a teacher education program to support Masters’ students specialising in secondary mathematics teaching to critically reflect on how they understood, noticed, and responded to students’ mathematical thinking based on samples of student written work.
Participants did professional reading, learned about how their framing of students’ mathematical thinking was socially, culturally, and historically conditioned, and explored different ways to consider student thinking to recognise and respond to their strengths.
Of the nine pre-service teachers involved in the study, seven, or 78%, initially demonstrated deficit-based approaches by focusing primarily on students’ misconceptions, flaws, and errors.
However, by the end of the program, all participants had shifted to using strengths-based language and framing including providing positive reinforcement and praise, as well as recognising students’ mathematical thinking as being a valuable resource to build upon.
When asked how school leaders can incorporate this concept into their school-wide instructional strategies to better support their mathematics teachers and student outcomes, Dr Scheiner said this requires a collaborative effort from school leaders and teachers.
“Firstly, leaders can promote a culture of positivity and growth by encouraging teachers to identify and leverage their own strengths in mathematics instruction. This can be done through professional development programs focused on strengths-based teaching approaches,” Dr Scheiner told The Educator.
“Furthermore, it’s important for school leaders to provide resources and support materials that align with the strengths-based approach.”
Dr Scheiner said this may include updated curriculum materials, instructional tools, and assessments that emphasize students’ strengths rather than focusing solely on deficits.
“This may also include the use of the coding scheme and spectrum of framings developed from the research that can be instrumental in facilitating the shift from deficit-based to strength-based thinking.”
How schools can use the research
Below, Dr Scheiner shares four ways school leaders can incorporate a strengths-based approach into their school-wide instructional strategies.
Implementing a Strengths-Based Curriculum: School leaders can work with teachers to incorporate a strengths-based approach within the curriculum, emphasizing the value of students’ mathematical ideas and thought processes.
Professional Development Workshops: Organize regular professional development workshops to train teachers on the strengths-based approach. This can involve training on how to notice and highlight students’ unique mathematical thinking and strengths, rather than focusing on their weaknesses or deficits.
Promoting a Culture of Positivity: Encourage a school-wide culture shift by acknowledging and celebrating students’ mathematical victories, however small. This could take the form of student recognition in school newsletters, award ceremonies, or displays of student work in the school.
Using the Coding Scheme and Spectrum of Framings (developed from the research): Utilize the coding scheme and spectrum of framings as tools to help teachers assess their own perspectives on students’ mathematical thinking. This can aid in self-reflection and facilitate the shift from deficit-based to strength-based thinking.
Getting buy-in from teachers
Dr Scheiner acknowledges while these strategies are backed by research, it’s not always easy for school leaders to support this transformation among their teachers, especially those resistant to change or deeply entrenched in traditional, deficit-based teaching methods.
However, he says the ‘coding scheme and spectrum of framings’ can be a vital tool facilitating the transition from deficit-based to strength-based thinking in education.
“Teachers can learn to use these tools through professional development sessions, leveraging them for self-reflection, peer feedback, and student assessment,” he said.
“They help teachers identify bias in their approach, improve collaboration among staff, and guide the creation of inclusive, strengths-focused assessments.”
Dr Scheier said over time, teachers’ practices evolve towards valuing students’ strengths and unique mathematical thinking.
“Adoption of these tools, paired with sustained support and recognition of progress, aids in creating a more supportive learning environment.”
A global solution?
Dr Scheiner said while the study was conducted in Germany, its findings can be adapted and applied to various educational and cultural contexts, including Australia – albeit with careful consideration of the unique local factors at play.
“First, it’s crucial to acknowledge that there are cultural differences in the way mathematics is taught and understood in Australia as compared to Germany,” he said.
“Just as in Germany, professional development will be key. Australian teachers will need to be introduced to the strengths-based approach, the coding scheme, and the spectrum of framings through professional development workshops or training sessions.”
Dr Scheiner said the coding scheme and spectrum of framings developed in the study are likely applicable tools, but cautioned these may need to be adapted slightly to fit the Australian context.
“For instance, incorporating local terminology or cultural nuances into the tools could make them more relatable and effective for Australian teachers.”
Other key takeaways for principals
Dr Scheiner said the below steps can be especially effective in helping principals adapt the insights from this research to meet the unique cultural and educational needs of their school communities.
Aligning with Australian Curriculum: The Australian curriculum has a strong focus on general capabilities, including critical and creative thinking, which are in alignment with a strengths-based approach. School leaders can leverage these synergies, incorporating the strengths-based methods in line with curriculum guidelines. The coding scheme and spectrum of framings could be integrated into the planning and evaluation processes of these capabilities.
Understanding Cultural Diversity: Australia’s multicultural student body necessitates an inclusive approach. Understanding and valuing cultural diversity can be considered a strength itself and incorporated into mathematical teaching and learning. As the study emphasizes recognizing students’ unique perspectives and strengths, this diversity can be harnessed in creative problem-solving approaches to mathematics.
Collaborative Workshops: School leaders can arrange workshops, much like the teacher education course in the study, for their teaching staff to experience the shift from deficit-based to strength-based framing. These workshops can leverage the spectrum of framings, the written noticing responses, and shared critical reflection on individual and shared framings.
Promote Epistemic Forms: Encourage the use of the coding scheme and spectrum of framings as regular tools for self-evaluation and planning instruction. This structured approach can assist in focusing on specific aspects, stances, and instructional moves that contribute to a strengths-based perspective.
“Remember that this shift to a strength-based approach in mathematics education, as the research indicates, requires time and commitment,” Dr Scheiner said. “The key will be adapting the principles and tools from the study to fit the Australian educational and cultural context.”