Ambitious mathematics teaching

A quest to research effective ways of teaching mathematics took Professor Glenda Anthony to the United States as the 2011 Fulbright-Harkness New Zealand Fellow. Based at the University of Washington, Professor Anthony learned how teachers are organising their classrooms as mathematical learning communities where students support and engage with each other’s mathematical thinking in respectful ways.

1 How did your time in Seattle change your thinking about ways to approach preparing teachers to teach mathematics?

Working alongside US researchers from the Learning in, From, and For Teaching Practice project I experienced first-hand the power of providing prospective teachers the opportunity to practise a range of high-leverage instructional practices (e.g., listening and responding to learners’ mathematical thinking, connecting mathematical ideas, and facilitating mathematical discussions) by using public rehearsal activities.

No longer content to teach prospective teachers about what effective teaching ‘looks like’ in theory, I am now committed to learning to become better at teaching prospective teachers learn the work of effective teaching practice. To this end I am currently researching ways to utilise ‘practice-based’ approaches that supports prospective teachers to not only ‘think’ like teachers, but also to put what they know into action.

2. You were a high school mathematics teacher. What do you think is the key to getting kids excited about so-called STEM subjects including mathematics?

The key to getting kids excited about STEM subjects is to not let them become ‘unexcited’. Children are naturally curious and excited about learning, Mathematics, technology and science subjects offer ways for children to explore, understand, and structure their informal everyday experiences.

With mathematics in particular, we need to start with building learning experiences around young children’s understandings by providing lots of opportunities to “play” with numbers, patterns and shapes. Children who are supported to make sense of the mathematics, who are part of a collaborative learning community, and who are positioned as competent, will more likely maintain an interest in and develop positive beliefs about themselves as mathematics learners.

I was in the US over the Halloween period. Halloween night involved a community street party, complete with an early snow fall – a particularly unique experience. Pumpkin lattes at Starbucks provided the complete package!

3. What is “ambitious teaching” and what did you learn about it during your time at the University of Washington in Seattle?

Ambitious mathematics teaching is focused on ambitious outcomes. Not content to focus on getting right answers, teachers using ambitious mathematics teaching want all students to develop positive relationship with mathematics. They organise their classrooms as mathematical learning communities where students support and engage with each other’s mathematical thinking in respectful ways.

Moving mathematics learning experiences away from individual, competitive and completion focus type activities towards more collaborative-based activities requires that teachers support the explicit development of mathematical practices of conjecture, explanation, and justification. In making students’ mathematical discourse and thinking the building block of instruction, collaboration becomes more than a token sharing of ideas; it becomes a means to extend the thinking and learning.

This kind of teaching is ambitious in the sense that teachers need to encourage students to be willing to reason and make decisions about what procedures to use while solving problems, and this requires a different type of social management that is not necessary when students are simply expected to follow directions. During my time at the University of Washington, I worked with the prospective teachers as they trialled their in-class learning of instructional activities with small groups of children in a multi-cultural community school setting.

The challenge for these beginning teachers was to learn how to structure their interactions with children to focus on mathematical goals while managing different levels of competence and interest, while also attending to all students maintaining a productive disposition towards the subject. Video recordings of each teaching session were analysed by groups of teachers as a way of supporting their ongoing learning of ambitious teaching practices.

4. Favourite memory from your time in the US?

I was in the US over the Halloween period. Each day on my walk to the university I would note the newly decorated front porches and gardens of the houses. For Halloween day itself, I was staying in Boston and was fortunate to visit Salem with another New Zealand Fulbright colleague and see Salem in its full ‘witchery’ mode.

Halloween night involved a community street party, complete with an early snow fall – a particularly unique experience. Pumpkin lattes at Starbucks provided the complete package!

5. What are you currently working on?

Since the Fulbright I have travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to work with mathematics educators on teaching practices and curriculum developments, and currently I am working in Indonesia within a project involving internationalisation of tertiary curriculum.

My principal research on returning to New Zealand involves leading a three year Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project funded by the New Zealand Council of Educational Research. Working with a team of mathematics educators from Massey University and Victoria University of Wellington, the project builds directly on the Fulbright experiences related to innovative ways to support teachers learn the work of ambitious mathematics teaching.

We have integrated teaching rehearsals and school enactment cycles as a way of supporting teachers learn the relational teaching practices associated with ambitious mathematics teaching. Developing new ways of teaching – for example coaching during rehearsals – and collaborative inquiry into our own practice and knowledge as teacher educators has been a rewarding experience.

This year the Massey University team was awarded a university-based Teaching Excellence and Innovation Award in recognition of the impact of our research and reforms on the preparation of mathematics teachers. As part of the project we are presently working with a small sample of our graduate teachers as they transition into the classroom workplace. We are interested in understanding how beginning teachers ‘try out’ different practices, and in their decisions regarding the integration of patterns of practice within their school environment into their teaching repertoires.

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