School resources: Evidence-based practice in Mathematics

It's well understood that highly effective school leaders promote the use of evidence-based teaching practices throughout their school. A new resource aims to support principals, learning leaders and teachers in thinking about their priorities and student needs in mathematics, and what the research says.

The eight monographs, produced by the Victorian Department of Education and Training and due for release later this month, will cover topics such as mathematics anxiety, critical connections between mathematics and numeracy, and engaging families in mathematics education.

‘They are designed to put research in the hands of school leaders and learning leaders and teachers, but in a digestable way that is short and sharp, and not overly simplified but usable,' Kerryn Sandford says. Sandford is Manager Numeracy and Mathematics Education in the department's Learning Teaching and Pathways Division and is overseeing development and production of the monographs.

‘They address different issues across K-12 (and even pre-school). Each monograph details the evidence base and provides support and evidence around what those issues look like in various areas of the school.

‘They highlight some of the key issues schools may look at in terms of developing an improvement strategy for numeracy. We've designed them so that they come with activity prompts to be used in Professional Learning Community teams, or faculty teams. So schools can pick pieces out and focus on those particular issues, and there are individual tasks and activities as well as team-based ones.'

The first eight topics and expert authors are:

  • Mathematics Anxiety – Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) Senior Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley identifies the evidence base around mathematics anxiety and provides suggestions for how to address it;
  • Critical Connections between Numeracy and Mathematics – ACER Senior Research Fellow Dave Tout explores how we distinguish between mathematics and numeracy, and why this is important for educators;
  • Engaging Families in Mathematics Education – Leicha Bragg, Sandra Herbert and Jill P. Brown, Senior Lecturers in Mathematics Teacher Education at Deakin University, provide strategies and ideas schools can use to get parents and families on board;
  • Gender and Mathematics – Helen Forgasz and Gilah Leder, Professor Emerita at Monash University, look at gender differences in performance and participation in mathematics and explore the question ‘are boys really better at maths than girls?';
  • The M in STEM – Professor Emeritus at RMIT University Di Siemon considers how school educators can make sure that the mathematics is not lost when developing STEM programs;
  • Big ideas in Mathematics – Professor Siemon asks ‘Are all ideas equal? How do we make sure that we can cover the curriculum but still spend time on the important concepts for student development?''
  • Targeted Teaching and Learning of Mathematics vs Streaming – Professor Siemon argues streaming is a pervasive issue in schools across the system and the evidence is clear, so why does the practice still exist?
  • Indigenous Culture and Mathematics – Professor Chris Matthews, Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance, recognises the contribution of Australia's first peoples to the field of mathematics and identifies the mathematical thinking that existed here long before European settlement.

Sandford says there were two major reasons for developing the series. ‘It's really important to acknowledge that there's a large appetite in schools for engaging with the research to inform practice, but school staff are often time-poor, so haven't really got the time to go searching for the research and they don't necessarily know where to look or what's the most relevant thing to look at. Secondly, there are some key issues in mathematics education that really need to be addressed. One example is the practice of streaming and ability grouping, which still happens in many schools, another is maths anxiety.'

She says the choice of topics was informed by feedback and suggestions from school leaders, subject leaders and teachers, and input from the department's regional education staff (such as Student Achievement Managers and Senior Education Improvement Leaders) who work with several schools to help develop their numeracy and literacy practices, and oversee improvement processes. ‘There's probably still a few more topics at the moment that we could touch on, but we haven't found the right [authors] to support us with that yet. We've got eight topics at the moment and that's where we're starting.'

Ultimately, the aim is to not only highlight effective teaching practices, but also the evidence. ‘It's no good just telling teachers and principals what to do, they need to understand the why,' Sandford says. We're catching up for our interview via Teams during the Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne as the state's educators prepare for the final term of what has been a topsy-turvey year.

A lot of the planning and background work, such as engaging expert authors, happened last year. COVID has disrupted school-based education for Victoria recently, but whatever happens in the future with remote learning the monographs will be accessible from anywhere online and to download as PDF or word documents. That also means teachers from other states and territories, and internationally, will be able to access the resources.

The monographs are due to be published later this month and will be available to access at this link.

Stay tuned: Series authors and ACER Senior Research Fellows Dr Sarah Buckley (Mathematics anxiety) and Dave Tout (Critical Connections between Numeracy and Mathematics) will be sharing an overview of their monographs and discussing the topics in two Teacher articles.

Thinking about your own context: What are your school priorities for mathematics? What are the specific student needs in different year groups? What is your focus for the rest of the year?