‘Numeracy is everyone's business'

The Global Teacher Prize awards US $1 million each year to a teacher who has made a remarkable impact as an educator. Last year's winner was Maggie MacDonnell, from a remote school in Canada. This year, three Australians made the 50 finalists and Teacher has spoken to all three, including Eddie Woo, who was last week named in the Top 10. Here, Sarah Mathews from Brisbane Bayside State College explains how she's working with colleagues from other faculties to improve numeracy outcomes.

Sarah Mathews' teaching career began in 2009 when she made the switch to education after working in research for almost two decades. In these past nine years, Mathews has drastically improved the numeracy abilities of students across the school at Brisbane Bayside State College, and credits her success to her innovative and evidence-based teaching style.

‘One of the things I learnt very quickly in the maths classroom is that a lot of the kids in high school didn't have that mathematical literacy, that numerical thinking that they needed,' she tells Teacher, adding that it was after reading a research paper about numeracy moments she was inspired to implement change across the school. ‘So I pitched “numeracy is everyone's business” to the principal [and suggested] that we could have a crack at getting these other faculties to support concrete and representational thinking in maths.'

The basis of Mathews' curriculum implementation stemmed from her realisation that maths classes were usually centred on abstract thinking, but the basics of concrete numeracy processes needed further consolidation among students at Brisbane Bayside State College. So, she began questioning where the teaching of concrete numeracy processes would fit into the school, as maths classes typically went from representational thinking through to abstract thinking. The answer Mathews came up with was to encourage other teachers across the school to engage in more explicit teaching of numeracy in their own classrooms.

‘So there was born “numeracy moments” across the school. I worked with other faculties across the school to see how they could actually support the maths that had been happening in classrooms through a bit more explicit teaching, a bit more explicit language in their own subjects. So, PE ... and even the arts classrooms, when it comes to geometry and space, they all played their roles.'

As for how this school-wide change was executed, Mathews says Brisbane Bayside State College had numeracy ability as one of their explicit improvement areas across the school, which helped staff get on board with the idea. Mathews was also given time to work closely with early-career teachers from each faculty, as well as time to go into the classrooms of other subjects to support the teachers as they began to unpack the language of mathematics in a different context with students.

‘Numeracy moments' was an instant success at the school, and Mathews was then met with the task of further developing the mathematical abilities of her students with more challenging problem solving tasks. This was in response to the fact that she found some students in her maths classes were solving problems straight away and didn't need the problem solving processes that other students required. ‘I need a full range of problems within the classroom so the kids are doing the thinking, but they're doing the thinking at their level … so rather than kids being bored because it's too easy … or not being able to do the [problem], they're actually being given problems that are targeted specifically to their thinking.'

Then began the inclusion of ‘chili questions' in lessons, a concept Mathews says Education Queensland had identified, which involved building a bank of questions at three different levels to effectively engage a class of students who were at varied levels in their mathematical ability. Soon enough, the ‘habanero chili' level was implemented by Mathews to engage students who were especially talented in mathematics and those in extension classes. ‘The kids got really engaged and the whole premise was “everyone's hot at numeracy, just how hot are you?”'

Informing her teaching from research is vital to keeping lessons relevant to her students, Mathews says. Although, it does involve taking time outside of work to keep up to date. As a former researcher, this kind of downtime is no chore, and the educator says she's driven by her constant desire for wanting to know more. ‘Being an ex-academic … I'm more than happy to spend my time reading education books and papers as I just sit down to unwind.'

As for what's next, Mathews is starting a new role as Head of Department of Mathematics and Numeracy and hopes to continue to foster her interest in research while she teaches. ‘I'd really like, through experiences and through my academic background, … to find a marriage between teaching and research, where I'm making a difference both in the classroom as well as at the bigger level.'

The Top 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize were announced last week, and Australian teacher Eddie Woo has been shortlisted. The winner is announced live in Dubai at an award ceremony in March. Stay tuned for one more article on Australia's other Top 50 nominee Principal Charlie Klein from Tjuntjuntjara.

Think about your own school context – what opportunities are there for colleagues from different faculties to work together to improve student literacy and numeracy skills?

Sarah Mathews says she relies heavily on research and educational reading to keep her lessons relevant. What techniques do you use to contextualise learning for your students?