Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Maths as a Mixed Martial art

 Entering a Year 7 classroom can be quite daunting for a student. I'm reading a few dystopian dramas and imagined a parallel universe with traditional classes mixed with mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts - a child entering a high school classroom for the first time.  It's all a bit dramatic but typical of my sense of humour.

“Jonny enters the Octagon being unable to count the sides, knowing that he is about to take a beating.  He hasn’t done the work required to be at this level.  Every previous outing he has failed. He seeks to distract his opponent by avoiding work set, breaking the rules and getting thrown out before his lack of competence can be identified and ridiculed.  Against all odds he attempts to answer the first question and it beats him to a pulp.”

“Mary enters the Octagon full of confidence.  She struts around the room announcing to everyone how this is too easy, she has the answer for every problem, being well prepared through her summer programme and her University educated parents.  She sees others in the room similarly confident – is she really the best in the room anymore? Her confidence falls.  Her first answer is wrong and now she is no longer the no.1 contender.”

“Harry walks into the Octagon.  He has worked hard but never found the success that warrants the work that he has put in.  Every step forward is difficult and he envies those that make it easy.  He timidly lifts his hand to give an answer.  He is ignored for a student that is actively seeking to give theirs.  His answer is correct but nobody knows.  He fails again.”

“Jill enters and listens to the instruction before the match.  She has heard it all before and could recite it before it is said.  She drifts off and starts thinking about fairies and unicorns.  The match starts, the test given and it is all over in a moment.  She has defeated each question and can return to the unicorns, with no idea of what she is capable of.”

“The teacher stands in the middle of the ring again as referee, coach, mentor, instructor.  Full of enthusiasm at the start, waning over the course of the match as the level of focus required and the challenges faced start to wear her down.  Will she do a good job or will the commentators attack her for not being all that is required?”

“The crowd stand on the edge of the ring, each encouraging their contender despite all odds.  Every parent is different – some on phones watching Netflix, others actively denouncing the referee despite all evidence, others taking notes of what needs to be done in the next match, others confused unable to comprehend what is happening.” 

In hindsight after writing this in the shoes of each participant, I realised learning should not be treated as a combat sport but often has elements of it.   I think I traumatised some of my staff when I read it to them.  We need to be mindful of what we are expecting of students,  making it into something that is wonderful to experience and not what is written above.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Long term improvement in Mathematics classes through an evidence based approach.

The health of a faculty can be measured in a number of ways:

- Student Behaviour

- Staff Morale

- Student Achievement / Student Progress

- Engagement

Measuring these is a complex and time consuming task.

- Student Behaviour (no. of behaviour reports)

- Staff and Community Perception (perception surveys, anecdotal evidence)

- Student Achievement / Student Progress (student class results, standardised testing)

- Engagement (student perception, participation rates, student success)

Each term, we focus on one of the measures and identify where focus areas are, possible measures for improvement and where success has been found.  Currently we are working on engagement in classrooms.  The chosen metric is success that a student is experiencing.

For instance, a class with an average of 50 under assessment conditions has half of the students in the class feeling unsuccessful as they have not been able to complete half of the assessment set.  Given that 50% is a common indicator of where minimum performance is expected, it is a fair indicator that engagement rates are poor and/or declining.

To drive improvement and increase engagement, a target of 85% of students achieving at least 50% on assessment tasks was set for the team.  Classes and teachers reaching this target were identified and then examined for practices that could be developed across the team.

Eyebrows were raised that such a high percentage was set as the target off a relatively low base.  Students entering high school experience success in Year 7 & 8, as work becomes more difficult and adolescence in Year 9, engagement can fall if not attended to and then lead to Senior school where students are placed in courses doing work predominantly covered in Years 7-10 and engagement rates rise.  Achievement of WACE is a siginificant motivator for staff and students given it is a highly monitored metric.

The forgotten middle is another area to target as often high achieving (and motivated) students and low ability students are given additional attention.  Students at a C level are often banded together and reinforce average performance with lower expectations (and subsequent class averages) experienced.  By encouraging higher levels of success (by increasing expectation and modifying grade cutoffs/assessment difficulty) it is hypothesized that higher overall achievement can be achieved (a concept at the heart of pathway grades in public schools).

Classes averages of 65, with SD of 12 indicate success levels commonly experienced in Methods and Specialist classes.  Averages of 60 with SD of 10 indicate levels similar to Applications classes.  Low SD indicate that assessments or instruction may be too narrow and skills based, pedagogy change may be required, wider may indicate that sections of the class require additional attention. Both cases may indicate that streaming processes need review.

Given 85% of students achieving passing grades is difficult to achieve, it requires attention at a student level, analysing individual student performance/underperformance, how it can be measured and how it can be improved. This can be done vs standardised testing or class averages longitudinally by teachers to identify students that require additional attention.

Where students experience legitimate, well explained succcess, senior school Mathematics participation, retention in courses and course achievement should improve.  The cycle of improvement is long, with 5-7 years to see significant change in results and culture of achievement.  Short term gains at a year or class level need to be celebrated to maintain the focus on improvement.