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Equity Buddies: A student social network supporting retention and achievement at UWS August 26, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Professor Margaret Vickers

When we ask how the University of Western Sydney can contribute to the Western Sydney community, we need to recognise that UWS itself needs to function as a community, creating new social connections and supporting all the students who come to us.

Equity Buddies (EB) is a for-credit cross-level student mentoring program developed with support from an Office of Learning and Teaching grant. Initially designed to provide support for UWS students with refugee backgrounds, it delivers clear benefits for the mentors as well as the mentees who participate in EB. These benefits include a stronger sense of ‘community’ on campus, improved writing and referencing skills, better time management, and (importantly) greater cross-cultural understanding. An alarming finding from our review of student reflections was that many students seemed, through Equity Buddies, to ‘discover’ for the first time that if you use relationships as a resource you can solve problems, do better work, and feel more confident. One student said,

This gave me a completely different idea about what the University experience can be. It’s not just about results.

This was not an isolated comment. Many students were surprised that ‘community building’ and ‘networking’ could be so powerful.

In the first iteration of EB, 50 second and third year students committed to one-to-one mentoring of 1st year students who met with them each week, engaging in mutually-negotiated activities that were sometimes social and sometimes academic. The broader significance of this project is that it demonstrates that students, many of whom are new arrivals or even students from refugee backgrounds, can provide very effective supports for first year students. Mentors found that in the process of doing this work their own academic skills improve. All students who participated in EB interacted with and learned from people whose cultural backgrounds were different to their own.

This was not merely a process that broadened the perspectives of Anglo-Australians; students from immigrant families reported similar learning, and a growth in respect for others. For example, a Christian Iraqi decided – after making friends with a Lebanese Muslim – that Islam was not always a ‘punitive and narrow’ religion. A Somali immigrant sympathised with and supported a newly arrived Vietnamese international student who is still struggling with English. Numerous examples could be cited.

Students come to UWS from very diverse ethnic backgrounds and often they remain sequestered within these ethnic groups after enrolling. By structuring opportunities for our students to know and support each other academically and socially across these divides, we could well make significant contributions to improved cross-cultural understanding in the Greater Western Sydney region.  

Margaret Vickers is a Professor in the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Equity Buddies was established in 2012 through a grant awarded to Margaret Vickers and Dr Katina Zammit. The project manager is Jan Morrison.

What place does Mastery Learning have in school mathematics? August 12, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Associate Professor Allan Leslie White

It was hard to decide at first if the article on Kumon was an infomercial (SMH, Saturday 2nd June, p.7, Difficult to pigeonhole, but teaching method has a loyal following) or an attempt to present a balanced report. While most of the adults interviewed in the article were Kumon instructors, there was no reason to doubt that they have the interests of their students as their first priority. Yet the article seemed to muddy the waters for parents seeking advice about this and other similar programs.

Through the intrusion of the internet, parents are presented with a large array of offers to help their children and there are many similar digital versions of Kumon available to choose from. So in the interests of clarifying some of the confusion that was created by the article, I make the following comments in relation to research on mathematics teaching and learning.

Firstly, Kumon and other mastery programs do help some students. These students improve their skill knowledge and their scores on tests and examinations. They are called mastery programs because they are based on a behaviourist philosophy which is often linked to training. Behaviourism assumes all children can learn if the journey of learning is broken into small steps. The student progresses by mastering each step through intensive repetition and drill. In the early days, students who could not master the small steps were labelled ‘slow learners’. Not all students are able to cope with the intensive practice and become disengaged, and various programs in order to address this have included systems of rewards.

Another assumption of behaviourism is that during the intensive practice to master a skill the student will come to an understanding of the underlying concept. Now for some students this in fact happens, and I am sure the bright young girl in the photo in the SMH article is probably one of these. However, there is no guarantee and in fact, research has shown that in a large number of cases the conceptual understanding does not happen. In some of these cases, within a short period of time after the drill and practice ends, then so does the students’ mastery.

It was the failure of behaviourism to concentrate upon students’ thinking and understanding rather than focus on skill proficiency that led to other theories of learning such as the cognitive science approach or the socio-cultural approach. These theories have sought to build more complex and inclusive models and have been greatly influenced by the developments in brain research and social and cultural research. They also have a far greater track record in producing, at a much faster rate, students who understand the underlying concepts.

The concentration upon thinking and conceptual understanding is often driven by the need for students to be able to apply their learning to novel and unique challenges and environments and not to mere test situations.

So to conclude, revision and practice and proficiency with mathematical procedures is important but should be accompanied by experiences that develop deep thinking and conceptual understanding. Mastery learning programs can help with the first but have a poor track record with the second. It is up to parents and teachers to decide if a child will benefit from a short term exposure to such mastery programs.

Allan White is Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He teaches in UWS’s Master of Teaching (Secondary) teacher education program, and is an internationally recognised researcher into mathematics education, teaching and learning. He also posted a popular earlier post on 21st Century Learning titled NSW Secondary mathematics teachers battered by a ‘perfect storm’.

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