As students return to the classroom, Keep calm and cluster!

by Brian Murray

As many students begin to return to their classrooms for the first time in many weeks, there are huge implication for schools and teachers.

The fortunate few

For some fortunate teachers, the transition experience from home-education to face-to-face teaching will be smooth and fluent; perhaps their students have sailed along merrily with the year’s planned learning activities since lock-down began. The period of home education may not have adversely affected their students at all, and these teachers will be able to pick up the face-to-face teaching where it left off a couple of months ago.

However, it seems highly likely that this will not be the case in the majority of classrooms. In fact, if truly effective learning has been taking place over this time of teacher-student distancing, a legitimate question could be posed: Who needs teachers when tasks can be set remotely and students can advance their own learning simply by completing the set activities?

Reality for the many

It may feel to teachers as if the school year is about to begin again from zero, and there is no doubt that the period of home-education will have left a huge hole in many students’ progress. At the beginning of lock-down there was a big hurrah for on-line learning. However, looking at the situation realistically, very few schools had the time or resources to set up totally effective on-line programs for their students.

In addition, there are around 20% of homes in which school students do not have access to effective digital resources. (For many, the main digital device is a smart phone, which is clearly not an ideal tool for online learning.)

The NSW Public Education Foundation executive director David Hetherington summed it up: “There are some statistics out there that suggest one in six children live in households below the poverty line. In many cases, these children don’t have access to a device or the connectivity that makes interaction with schools and the education system possible.” (ABC News, March 20th, 2020.)

At the beginning of the lock-down, teachers were tasked with quickly putting together ‘learning packs’ for their students (in digital or hard-copy form), and the work was to be completed under their parents’ supervision. This was always destined to be a hit-and-miss process because it depended almost completely on:

  1. The students and parents being as motivated about the learning activities as were the teachers who prepared them.
  2. The students needing no professional teaching support during the completion of the activities.
  3.  The parents having time to work with their children. (My niece, for example, posted on Facebook that she was trying her best to be an effective pre-school, Year 1, Year 5, Year 8 and Year 10 teacher in each home-schooling session.)

In reality, home education has served to inform the general public that for the majority of students:

  1. Face-to-face teaching with a professional educator is an essential part of the education of most (if not all) students.
  2. Teachers are angels.

In summary, it could (somewhat cynically, perhaps) be argued that calls for a quick return to school-based learning proves that, in addition to the desire to advance our children’s education, one of the prime reasons for schools to exist is so that parents have somewhere safe for their children to be during the working day.

A maths pathway for the rest of 2020

As students begin to return to full-time learning in the classroom, it promises to be an anxious time for teachers in many ways. The dilemma of where, what and how is something that teachers will face in all curriculum areas, not least of which is maths:

  • Where are my students up to in their maths learning?
  • What part of the year’s curriculum content is to be included in the shortened school year?
  • How do I choose which maths topics to cover with the students in my class?
  • Where are my students up to (following lock-down)?

One tool that could prove very effective for teachers is to use the pre-tests that are provided for each topic in Oxford Maths for Australian Schools. The pre-tests are designed to be completed quickly by students (in 10 minutes or less) and the results can be used to give a snapshot of where each student is at, with regard to readiness for the focus topic. The questions are in four graded sections: limited knowledge, basic knowledge, sound knowledge and outstanding knowledge of the topic area.

What maths topics should I teach?

The NSW Educational Standards Authority has given advice to schools that enables them to be flexible for the remainder of 2020 in terms of the syllabus outcomes and content that they choose to teach. This sensible flexibility will free teachers from the anxiety of trying to rush through every maths topic that has not already been covered with their class so far this year. However, the desire will no doubt still be there for most teachers to cover as many broad areas of the year’s maths curriculum as possible.

One way to do this is to cluster together some maths topics. An advantage of this approach is that it can alleviate the danger of students not seeing the way that, say, work on Probability ties in closely with an understanding of Fractions and Decimals.

There are, of course, numerous ways in which groups of topics can be formed, but the main aim is that the topics should cluster naturally together and that, since a cluster might be worked through over a period of several weeks, a single cluster should not become boring for the students.

Suggested clusters for every year level of the Oxford Maths for Australian Schools program can be found on the Teacher Dashboards from June 10. Teachers can choose from the list of suggestions in any order, and spend as long as they wish covering the content. Most topics appear in more than one cluster. In Year 6, for example, the topic of Length appears in Cluster 2 (Applying numbers according to their place value and units of measurement) and in Cluster 8 (Many-to-one comparisons). So…

Keep calm and carry on clustering!

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