Research suggests it's rare to find professional development programs for teachers of mathematics that have been scaled up and sustained over time.
Given this, Rob Proffitt-White asked his colleague Professor Merrilyn Goos from the University of Queensland to identify the conditions that had been created in developing a project that focused on bringing together primary and secondary school teachers to build their curriculum knowledge, confidence, and enthusiasm for teaching mathematics.
From 2014 to 2018, Proffitt-White was Principal Education Advisor for the Australian Curriculum for Mathematics. It was a role that covered 225 Queensland schools from Moreton Downs to Bundaberg, and his responsibilities included helping teacher practices, assessment and pedagogies align with the Australian Curriculum.
In order to better target teacher needs and to anchor the necessary leadership and commitment, Proffitt-White knew they'd need to get buy-in at the regional and school levels. This would involve both money and time.
In 2014, it began with the goal to set aside time for teachers to come together to look for ways to embed effective practices. The North Coast Region, which he covered, decided to build up two or three people as experts in maths and build both capability and credibility to support all schools with subject specific professional learning.
The project was set up to bring the Australian Curriculum to life, and had three broad goals overall – to improve students' performance on NAPLAN Numeracy tests, to improve students' dispositions towards mathematics, and to improve teachers' knowledge, confidence, and enthusiasm for teaching mathematics.
‘I think the aims were really to develop teachers as mathematical leaders so they could establish and sustain teaching practices for the effective discipline and learning of maths to get the intent of the curriculum through,' Proffitt-White says. ‘So we therefore had to set out to create and sustain the necessary conditions to build these strong professional learning communities.'
One school's approach
In 2015, Proffitt-White embedded the research around mathematics professional learning into one of the schools he was working with. This involved both the Principal and Deputy Principal who visited classrooms to watch it in action. He says once this rippled down to teachers, they began to see the impact of the approach, not just on student confidence, but on student outcomes on NAPLAN as well. This approach was endorsed by Peter Sullivan, a Professor of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at Monash University and a lead writer of the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics.
‘So the challenge was laid down, if we could make it work in one school setting, could we now start to look at can we scale it up?' Proffitt-White says.
From there, they knew they needed to get people involved, from regional directors, to principals – and they all knew it would be a two-three year process.
‘And as a result of that, by 2017 the same model had been scaled up to Gympie maths schools which was a cluster of six primaries and the two high schools. And that was a project over two years and once again, that was endorsed which excited the teachers, by winning the Showcase Award again two years later for proving that it can be scaled up across diverse schools.
‘We had the Gympie Mathematics Alliance, and we also branched off to the Noosa Hinterlands to try and prove that this could work in the high socio-economic groups and the not so high socio-economic groups. And it also worked in a primary setting, and a high school setting so we were trying to show how, given the leadership commitment, this could work in any particular school role.'
How the initiative evolved over time. Image: Rob Proffitt-White
On a simplistic level, the professional development initially took place over 12 days each year, three days each term. Proffitt-White says the time between the days is just as important as the actual days themselves as it allowed teachers and school leaders to try out and reflect on what works best in each of the school's unique conditions.
‘What those days would look like – there would be discussion of research, pulling it apart and aligning it in the morning, then there would be collaborative creation of rich tasks and a coming into rooms to look at what words and actions were needed to bring those tasks to life,' he says.
Teacher confidence in mathematics
Proffitt-White says that teachers were asking for effective ways to formatively assess their students against the four proficiencies and to feel more confident in adopting and adapting tasks, assessments and feedback to better target their student needs – but one initial obstacle was that many still claimed to have a high level of confidence in their teaching of mathematics.
‘In Queensland, the State-wide School Opinion Survey asks teachers if they're confident with applying evidence-based teaching and it asks them if they're confident with the knowledge of the curriculum. And when you go to the data, with all the teachers who take part in Queensland (so we're talking about a huge sample size) teachers who agree with that statement or somewhat agree, it's like 97 per cent.
‘So when 97 per cent of the market believe they're doing a good job by simply delivering well intended instructional materials, it begs the question, is there going to be a perceived need for professional learning?'
Image: Rob Proffitt-White.
As part of another project, Proffitt-White posed similar questions to a group of 232 teachers, master teachers, coaches, heads of departments, deputy principals and principals.
A pre-workshop self-assessment showed 91 per cent of delegates said they were confident to teach the four mathematical proficiencies to students. Similarly, 86 per cent of respondents said they feel confident they can differentiate problem solving with a range of routine and non-routine problems, while 79 per cent felt confident they could distinguish between mathematics and numeracy.
Results from the pre-workshop self-assessment. Image: Rob Proffitt-White
Following the half-day workshop with these educators, they were posed the questions again. School leaders and teachers agreed that there was an urgency to act and were united in their commitment to look at ways to minimise inconsistencies in teacher attitudes, values and beliefs. The results from this self-assessment are displayed below.
Results from a self-assessment after the half-day workshop. Image: Rob Proffitt-White
With plans to relocate to New Zealand later this year, Proffitt-White is still working on this project in 2019, but on a smaller scale – specifically with five or six principals who will ensure the project is sustained.
Consider these questions. How confident are you in teaching the four mathematical proficiencies to your students?
How confident are you in differentiating problem solving with a range of routine and non-routine problems? How confident are you in distinguishing between mathematics and numeracy?