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“If you like the teacher, you’ll ‘get’ maths more”: Students talk about good mathematics teachers October 11, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: , ,

From Cathy Attard

In her first post, Cathy Attard explores the classroom conditions necessary to optimise student engagement in learning mathematics. She finds that student relationships with their teachers are critical in allowing them to learn mathematics effectively.

Many students during the middle years of schooling (Year 5 to Year 8 in New South Wales) are experiencing emotional, social, physical, and cognitive changes that must be dealt with in the mathematics classroom.  Mathematics curriculum and instruction must address the particular needs of these students because so many jobs, and indeed the demands of everyday living now and in the future, require complex mathematical thinking. Over the last 20 years research has overwhelmingly documented an increasingly smaller percentage of students pursuing the study of mathematics at upper secondary level and beyond. The choice not to pursue mathematics has been seriously influenced by students’ attitudes towards and performance in mathematics, in turn deeply shaped by school mathematical experiences and the teaching they experienced in school (Nardi & Steward, 2003).

So, what makes a good mathematics teacher? There are several frameworks that address ‘good’ teaching including the Quality Teaching Framework (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2003) and the Standards for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics in Australian schools (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers [AAMT], 2006). But how do these frameworks compare to what students think about the qualities of a good mathematics teacher? During a longitudinal study on engagement in middle years mathematics, I asked a group of 20 Year 6 students at a Western Sydney school to name the qualities that make a ‘good’ mathematics teacher. The students’ said a good maths teacher:

  • is passionate about teaching mathematics;
  • responds to students’ individual needs;
  • gives clear explanations;
  • uses scaffolding rather than providing answers;
  • encourages positive attitudes towards mathematics; and
  • shows an awareness of each students’ prior knowledge.

The study followed the same group of students through their transition to high school, and into Year 7. During their time in secondary school, the students’ experiences included a wide range of pedagogies and teachers, and significant exposure to technology within the mathematics classroom.  Despite being exposed to an integrated curriculum and a school that was purpose built to cater for next-practice learning and teaching, it was the teachers and the relationships that were built within the classroom that had the most significant impact on student engagement in mathematics. It appeared that the introduction of technology during Year 7 had removed many of the opportunities for student/teacher and student/student interaction that are such an integral aspect of learning mathematics. During their time in Year 7 the students experienced lowered engagement as a result.

Two years after the study began, when the students were in Year 8, their secondary school underwent some significant changes in terms of its curriculum delivery (no longer integrated) and the use of technology in the mathematics classrooms. There was significantly less reliance on technology and a much heavier emphasis on direct instruction. The students began to build relationships with their teachers and in turn, this saw their engagement in mathematics begin to build. The students spoke about how they now felt their teachers ‘cared’ about them and ‘knew’ them. This comment indicates the importance of positive student/teacher relationships: “if you like the teacher, you’ll get maths more. You’ll know what’s going on more.”

Although some of the pedagogies these students experienced during the study were not considered ‘best practice’, it appears the students were able to overcome this, whereas it was difficult for them to overcome the lack of positive interactions with some of their mathematics teachers. It is proposed that regardless of the school context, students in the middle years have a need for positive teacher-student and student-student relationships as a foundation for engagement in mathematics. This relationship is built on an understanding of students and their learning needs. Unless such a relationship exists, other pedagogical practices including the use of technology may not sustain engagement in mathematics during the middle years.

References: Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers [AAMT]. (2006). Standards of Excellence in Teaching Mathematics in Australian Schools. Adelaide: Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers.  Nardi, E., & Steward, S. (2003). Is mathematics T.I.R.E.D? A profile of quiet disaffection in the secondary mathematics classroom. British Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 345-367.  NSW Department of Education and Training. (2003). Quality Teaching in NSW Public Schools. Sydney: Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.


Cathy Attard is a Lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She specialises in student engagement in mathematics, with a focus on primary school mathematics.


1. Michael F. - October 11, 2010

At risk of being labelled unprofessional, surely the emphasis should be that students are able to overcome pedagogical malpractice? ACER research shows that student desires and goals greatly determine student achievement. Students who don’t transition to the different teaching/learning styles aren’t going to feel that their teachers “understand” them. Too many students seem to resent the transition to a non-integrated, more clinical, and dare I say, adult, learning style. Perhaps society should emphasize that the purpose of childhood is to grow to adulthood.

Let’s be honest, the article effectively blames mathematics teachers for the decline in student desires. On that basis English teachers must have a thing or two to teach us. Nothing is said of the mandated changes in curriculum or the changing attitudes in society. To seriously credit the decline in mathematics to the teachers who also teach other subjects who have not suffered similar declines suggests schizophrenic teaching.

I agree that teacher-student relationships are important and that teachers should strive to improve the relationship. But students are capable of growing up in their approach to learning and relationships.

2. Ethan Yazzie-Mintz - October 13, 2010

This is a terrific study that reflects many of the findings of the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE)in the U.S., in terms of students’ perceptions of their school experience and students’ engagement with learning. While adults are often focused on structures and outcomes, students are looking for strong relationships with peers and adults, motivating their ability to learn and persist.

In response to the earlier comment, this piece certainly does not blame teachers; rather, it highlights the power of teachers. Students are looking for more interaction and stronger connections with their teachers; the qualities of a good teacher described by the students are in line with what much research shows about why teachers go into teaching initially. The piece reveals great potential for the teaching-learning relationship.

A big part of the problem in schooling is the idea that “the purpose of childhood is to grow to adulthood.” Not sure how you’re defining your terms, but students are quite clear that adults don’t understand — or try to understand — their experiences and their world. They don’t feel that they matter at all in school and, as a result, turn off to schooling. This study provides some important ways in which pedagogy can play a key role in strengthening the connection students feel to teachers and school, enhancing learning and achievement.

Will Morony - October 13, 2010

I reckon developing good relationships is necessary but not sufficient. I’ve seen a number of people interpret this as making the aim to have the kids like them (frequent with early career people in my experience). My view is that the point about having good relationships is to engage the students in learning (maths). It is then that the matter of pedagogical malpractice (I liked the term!) is a hindrance. Good relationships might be very important, but optimising learning will only come from pedagogies that are designed for good learning for individuals and groups. Naturally it isn’t as cut and dried as that, but I hope you see my point.

And in relation to the AAMT Standards (in which I have a vested interest!), most of the dot points in the middle are all front and centre in them. So the views of teachers and students about good teaching would seem to coincide.

The one about ‘clear explanations’ reminds me of a anecdote from David Clarke from Melbourne Uni. He had some year 8 or so kids look at video footage of them in a maths classroom and asked them to identify the key moments – for them – in the lesson. They stopped the video at a section where the teacher was interacting with them about the problem they were doing. The teacher was saying things like “How do you know you are right?” “Could you do it another way?” What if…?” – all questions we’d hope teachers are using to elicit and prompt thinking etc. ie good, engaging and effective pedagogy in my view. Anyway what the kids said was “That proves she’s a good teacher. She always explains things so well!” Moral of the story may be that kids don’t have a sophisticated language to talk about this stuff. We wouldn’t say the teacher is ‘explaining’ at all!

3. Technology in the middle years mathematics classroom: Technology driving pedagogy or pedagogy driving technology? « 21st Century Learning - August 12, 2012

[…] mentioned in my first blog post, “If you like the teacher, you’ll ‘get’ maths more”: Students talk about good mathematics t…my recent research into engagement with mathematics during the middle years found students appeared […]

4. LEE - November 28, 2012

Good analysis and follow up, it supports what many teachers have always known, technology can’t replace the human touch

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