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Professional learning and Primary Mathematics: Engaging teachers to engage students February 24, 2015

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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Catherine Attard

The issue of student engagement with mathematics is a constant topic of discussion and concern within and beyond the classroom and the school, yet how much attention is given to the engagement of teachers? I am a firm believer that one of the foundational requirements for engaging our students with mathematics is a teacher who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, confident, and passionate about mathematics teaching and learning – that is, a teacher who is engaged with mathematics. Research has proven that the biggest influence on student engagement with mathematics is the teacher, and the pedagogical relationships and practices that are developed and implemented in day to day teaching (Attard, 2013).


A regular challenge for me as a pre-service and in-service teacher educator is to re-engage teachers who have ‘switched off’ mathematics, or worse still, never had a passion for teaching mathematics to begin with. Now, more than ever, we need teachers who are highly competent in teaching primary mathematics and numeracy. The recent release of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) (2014) report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, included a recommendation that pre-service primary teachers graduate with a subject specialisation prioritising science, mathematics, or a language (Recommendation 18). In the government’s response (Australian Government: Department of Education and Training, 2015), they agree  “greater emphasis must be given to core subjects of literacy and numeracy” and will be instructing AITSL to “require universities to make sure that every new primary teacher graduates with a subject specialisation” (p.8). While this is very welcome news, we need to keep in mind that we have a substantial existing teaching workforce, many of whom should consider becoming subject specialists. It is now time for providers of professional development, including tertiary institutions, to provide more opportunities for all teachers, regardless of experience, to improve their knowledge and skills in mathematics teaching and learning, and re-engage with the subject.


So what professional learning can practicing teachers access in order to become ‘specialists’, and what models of professional learning/development are the most effective? Literature on professional learning (PL) describes two common models: the traditional type of activities that involve workshops, seminars and conferences, and reform type activities that incorporate study groups, networking, mentoring and meetings that occur in-situ during the process of classroom instruction or planning time (Lee, 2007). Although it is suggested that the reform types of PL are more likely to make connections to classroom teaching and may be easier to sustain over time, Lee (2007) argues there is a place for traditional PL or a combination of both, which may work well for teachers at various stages in their careers. An integrated approach to PD is supported by the NSW Institute of Teachers (2012).


In anticipation of the TEMAG recommendations for subject specialisation, I have been involved in the design and implementation of a new, cutting edge course to be offered by the University of Western Sydney, the Graduate Certificate of Primary Mathematics Education, aimed at producing specialist primary mathematics educators. The fully online course will be available from mid 2015 to pre-service and in-service teachers. Graduates of the course will develop deep mathematics pedagogical content knowledge, a strong understanding of the importance of research-based enquiry to inform teaching and skills in mentoring and coaching other teachers of mathematics. For those teachers who are hesitant to commit to completing a full course of study, the four units of the Graduate Certificate will be broken up into smaller modules that can be completed through the Education Knowledge Network (www.uws.edu.au/ekn) from 2016 as accredited PL through the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES).


In addition to continuing formal studies, I would encourage teachers to join a professional association. In New South Wales, the Mathematical Association of NSW (MANSW) (http://www.mansw.nsw.edu.au) provides many opportunities for the more traditional types of professional learning, casual TeachMeets, as well as networking through the many conferences offered. An additional source of PL provided by professional associations are their journals, which usually offer high quality, research-based teaching ideas. The national association, Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) has a free, high quality resource, Top Drawer Teachers (http://topdrawer.aamt.edu.au), that all teachers have access to, regardless of whether you are a member of the organisation or not. Many more informal avenues for professional learning are also available through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, as well as blogs such as this.


Given that teachers have so much influence on the engagement of students, it makes sense to assume that when teachers themselves are disengaged and lack confidence or the appropriate pedagogical content knowledge for teaching mathematics, the likelihood of students becoming and remaining engaged is significantly decreased, in turn effecting academic achievement. The opportunities that are now emerging for pre-service and in-service teachers to increase their skills and become specialist mathematics teachers is an important and timely development in teacher education and will hopefully result in improved student engagement and academic achievement.




Attard, C. (2013). “If I had to pick any subject, it wouldn’t be maths”: Foundations for

engagement with mathematics during the middle years. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 25(4), 569-587.


Australian Government: Department of Education and Training (2015). Teacher

education ministerial advisory group. Action now: Classroom ready teachers. Australian Government Response.


Lee, H. (2007). Developing an effective professional development model to enhance teachers’ conceptual understanding and pedagogical strategies in mathematics. Journal of Educational Thought, 41(2), 125.

NSW Institute of Teachers. (2012). Continuing professional development policy – supporting the maintenance of accreditation at proficient teacher/professional competence. .  Retrieved from file:///Users /Downloads/Continuing%20Professional%20Development%20Policy.pdf.


Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (2014). Action now: Classroom ready


Lost opportunities, forgotten children: Education for refugee children in detention February 21, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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From: Susanne Gannon

This morning I read about my university’s most recent ‘remarkable graduate’, Rwandan-born Noel Zihabamwe, and I heard on Radio National from Afghanistan-born PhD graduate Dr Ahmad Sarmast about his work bringing music back to Kabul. Yesterday I picked up a copy of Supporting School-University Pathways for refugee students’ access and participation in tertiary education hot off the press by my colleague Associate Professor Loshini Naidoo and her team, and last Monday I watched more buck-passing about children in immigration detention on ABC’s Q&A by politicians from the major parties. This month the child I know who was born in detention in Nauru started high school. Fortunately, that family moved to Australia as refugees before their child was old enough for school. But these events made me wonder about how we might think about equity issues in the education of children in detention.

Although we might quibble about how we define ‘equity’ in education – with opinions clustering around access, outcomes, ‘choice’, aspiration, quality, funding, and so on – what is clear is that education changes lives. It is, at heart, and at best, a social justice project and fundamental to democracy. Arguably, it is for the most disadvantaged communities that education can have the greatest impact. Without doubt, the most disadvantaged are children from refugee backgrounds, particularly those who have been, or who are, in immigration detention.

This afternoon I returned to the two reports, ten years apart, on children in immigration detention to consider what they have to say specifically about education. What is surprising is not their differences, nor do they deploy the volatile rhetoric that circulates around them in the public sphere. Rather I am struck by the sobriety and consistency of their messages. The core purpose of education to help people to achieve their potential has been – and continues to be – deeply compromised by Australian immigration detention policies and practice.

A last resort: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (April 2004), presented to then Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock by then HREOC Commissioner Sev Ovdowski, dedicates Chapter 12 to Education for Children in Immigration Detention. The new report The forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (November 2014) [6] presented to Attorney-General George Brandis by AHRC President Gillian Triggs and released last week shifts its focus somewhat by disaggregating the category of children in detention, and by taking a more developmental approach. Chapters 8 and 9 focus specifically on school-aged primary and secondary school-aged children, respectively. Rather than being separated into a distinct chapter of its own as it was in 2004, education is addressed in a subsection of each chapter alongside emotional health and well-being, physical environment and so on. Chapter 12, on Children in detention on Nauru, also addresses education directly.

Equality of access is the crucial issue in the 2004 inquiry, and the Report concludes that it is best achieved by accessing education outside detention. Their investigation shows that this was the only way that an adequate quality of education could be provided in light of the ‘significant barriers to education inside the centres’ (579). External education ‘significantly improves the education received by detainee children’ though regrettably, had only become available to detained children late in the period of the inquiry with 80% of children in external schools by mid-2003 (579). Prior to that, internal provision of education was impacted by inadequate facilities and equipment, insufficient teachers, inappropriately qualified (ESL) teachers, inappropriate or no curriculum, teacher turnover, inadequate hours of tuition, lack of assessment and reporting, attendance, mobility, children’s depression, distress and trauma (587-623).

The 2004 report notes that the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges the Australian government to provide primary and secondary education to all children, regardless of whether or not they are in immigration detention. The principle of nondiscrimination also means that it must be of equivalent quality to that available to other children (581). The ‘best interests of the child’ are the first consideration in education (582). The report noted ‘inherent inconsistency between the current mandatory detention system, and the protection of children’s fundamental rights’ (630). Children who attended external education benefitted from ‘the opportunity to experience a full curriculum, …to socialize and make new friends, and …to regularly leave the detention environment’ (632), and were described by one Principal as ‘model students’ (632), and by another Principal as demonstrating ‘high levels of participation in extracurricular activities’ (632). The detailed description of specialized support for refugee children at one exemplary school (Holroyd High School, Sydney) demonstrates not only what is needed, but what is possible (568).

Fast forward ten years. The 2014 Inquiry reiterates the legal frameworks for Australia’s obligation to care for children and to consider the best interests of the child ahead of all other considerations. Our current policies remain in breach – as they also were in 2004 – of our obligations under the Conventions of the Rights of the Child (74-77). The chapter subsections on education are much briefer than the long chapter on education in the 2004 Report. They do not address issues of curriculum or teacher quality that were relevant when the Detention Centre Management (ACM in 2004, SERCO in 2014) endeavored to provide education inside centres. It is clear that external provision by fully qualified teachers with proper curriculum in appropriate learning spaces is now recognized as essential. However access to schools remains problematic, so for those children who are not attending schools there is not even an inadequate alternative available inside detention.

For primary and secondary school children, there is uneven provision of schooling with mainland children accessing external schools if they have been enrolled and very poor access for children on Christmas Island and Nauru. Children on Christmas Island, which is an Australian territory with schools staffed and regulated by Australian educational authorities, had ‘almost no school education… not more than two to four weeks over an eight month period’ in 2013, however a new agreement with WA Catholic Education Office improved provision from mid-2014 (130-131). Teenage children on Christmas were similarly impacted by very limited access to education. Though most teenagers on the mainland were enrolled in public schools, stress, trauma and security measures were impacting on their capacity to learn. Some teenagers in the Melbourne Detention Centre were prevented or discouraged from attending school because of the possibility or threat that they would be transferred to Christmas Island (147). The chapters on primary aged children and teenagers both conclude that the inadequate provision of school education on Christmas Island ‘has had negative effects on their learning and may have long term impacts on the cognitive development and academic progress of these children’ (134, 148). Nauru seems to be the only detention centre where provision of primary and secondary school education is made largely on site, within the detention centre, and the concerns are consistent with those expressed ten years ago. The environment inside detention on Nauru ‘is not conducive to learning’ (184), with inadequate equipment and facilities, and multiage classes with teacher quality inside the detention centre not explicitly addressed. A pilot project had allowed a small number of older students to attend external schools in Nauru, but teacher shortages and resourcing problems within those schools made it unlikely to continue.

Finally, although education is addressed much more briefly in the 2014 report, it is clear that adequate provision is far from being achieved. Education is not a high priority for the management of detention centres, who are charged with detaining people rather than expanding their capacities to achieve their individual potential or to contribute to society. Governments too are blind to the potential of these young people, and to our obligations – morally, ethically, legally – to provide education that might assist with this.


Associate Professor Susanne Gannon is Equity Program leader in the Centre for Educational Research, School of Education, at the University of Western Sydney.

Mathematics, technology, and 21st Century learners: How much technology is too much? February 10, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Primary Education, Role of the family.
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from Catherine Attard

On a recent visit to a shopping centre in Sydney, I noticed a new children’s playground had been installed. On closer inspection (see the photos below) I was amazed to find a cubby house structure that had a number of iPads built into it. There was also a phone charging station built less than a metre off the ground, for users of the playground to access.

The playground had obviously been designed for very young children. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t playgrounds be meant for physical activity? What messages are the designers of this playground sending to children and their parents? Does technology have to pervade every aspect of our lives? What damage is this doing to children’s social and physical skills?

attard 2

While considering the implications of this technology-enhanced playground, I began to reflect on the ways we use technology in the classroom.

Is there such as thing as having too much technology? I am a strong supporter of using technology to enhance teaching and learning, and I know there are a multitude of benefits for students and teachers, particularly in relation to the use of mobile technologies (Attard 2014, 2013).

However, there are issues and tensions. How do we, as educators, balance the use of technology with what we already know works well? For example, in any good mathematics classroom, students would be manipulating concrete materials to assist in building understandings of important mathematical concepts. Children are engaged in hands-on mathematical investigations and problem solving, arguing, reasoning and communicating through the language of mathematics.

Can technology replace the kinesthetic and social aspects of good mathematics lessons? How do we find the right balance? Do students actually want more technology in the classroom, or do they prefer a more hands-on and social approach?


Often we use technology in the classroom to bridge the ‘digital divide’ between students’ home lives and school. We know this generation has access to technology outside the school, and we often assume that students are more engaged when we incorporate digital technologies into teaching and learning.

In the The App Generation, Gardner and Davis (2013) discuss how our current generation relies on technology in almost every aspect of their lives. They make some important points that can translate to how we view the use of the technology in the classroom:

 Apps can make you lazy, discourage the development of new skills, limit you to mimicry or tiny trivial tweaks or tweets – or they can open up whole new worlds for imagining, creating, producing, remixing, even forging new identities and enabling rich forms of intimacy (p. 33).

Gardner and Davis argue that young people are so immersed in apps, they often view their world as a string of apps. If the use of apps allows us to pursue new possibilities, we are ‘app-enabled’. Conversely, if the use and reliance on apps restricts and determines procedures, choices and goals, the users become ‘app-dependent’ (2013). If we view this argument through the lens of mathematics classrooms, the use of apps could potentially restrict the learning of mathematics and limit teaching practices, or they could provide opportunities for creative pedagogy and for students to engage in higher order skills and problem solving.

So how do educators strike the right balance when it comes to technology? I often promote the use of the SAMR model (Puentedura, 2006) as a good place to start when planning to use technology. The SAMR model (Puentedura, 2006) represents a series of levels of “incremental technology integration within learning environments” (van Oostveen, Muirhead, & Goodman, 2011, p. 82).

However, the model is not without limitations. Although it describes four clear levels of technology integration, I believe there should be another level, ‘distraction’, to describe the use of technology that detracts from learning. I also think the model is limited in that it assumes that integration at the lower levels, substitution and augmentation, cannot enhance students’ engagement. What is important is the way the technology is embedded in teaching and learning. Any tool is only as good as the person using it, and if we use the wrong tool, we minimise learning opportunities.

Is there such a thing as having too much technology? Although our students’ futures will be filled with technologies we haven’t yet imagined, I believe we still need to give careful consideration to how, what, when and why we use technology, particularly in the mathematics classroom. If students develop misconceptions around important mathematical concepts, we risk disengagement, the development of negative attitudes and students turning away from further study of mathematics in the later years of schooling and beyond.

As for the technology-enhanced playground, there is a time and a place for learning with technology. I would rather see young children running around, playing and laughing with each other rather than sitting down and interacting with an iPad!



Attard C, 2014, iPads in the primary mathematics classroom: exploring the experiences of four teachers in Empowering the Future Generation Through Mathematics Education, White, Allan L., Tahir, Suhaidah binti, Cheah, Ui Hock, Malaysia, pp 369-384. Penang: SEMEO RECSAM.

Attard, C. (2013). Introducing iPads into Primary Mathematics Pedagogies: An Exploration of Two Teachers’ Experiences. Paper presented at the Mathematics education: Yesterday, today and tomorrow (Proceedings of the 36th Annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia), Melbourne.

Gardner, H, & Davis, K. (2013). The app generation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Puentedura, R. (2006). SAMR.   Retrieved July 16, 2013, from www.hippasus.com

van Oostveen, R, Muirhead, William, & Goodman, William M. (2011). Tablet PCs and reconceptualizing learning with technology: a case study in higher education. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 8(2), 78-93. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17415651111141803


Dr Catherine Attard is a senior lecturer in mathematics education at the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She is is currently the president of the Mathematical Association of New South Wales and secretary of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, and has contributed a number of posts on mathematics education to this blog.

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