Written by Annie Facchinetti, Primary Educator
Maths can be a polarising subject – students either love it or hate it. But this line has become somewhat blurred in 2020 with the necessity of remote learning and a whole new approach to how we teach and engage students. Some previously competent students lost confidence as they struggled to make sense of a world in the grip of a pandemic that changed our everyday lives beyond anything we might have anticipated. Other students may not have had access to the technology or support at home required to effectively engage in online learning, or were unable to maintain the self-motivation to complete assigned tasks. And yet others unexpectedly flourished, relishing newfound independence and different approaches to receiving and presenting work.
As we slowly return to normalcy, teachers are heaving a collective sigh of relief to have their students back in the classroom. Having adapted and overcome the challenges thrown at us in such unforeseen circumstances, we are now, however, faced with new challenges – to first and foremost support our students as they adjust to the return to school and then to plan for students’ ongoing academic progress. A recent study of around 3500 teachers across Australia and New Zealand found that 80 percent of teachers believe that students are going to need extra instructional support to address the disruption to learning in 2020 (Pivot, 2020). In the primary years, the effects of this year’s exceptional educational circumstances may be especially profound in the area of mathematics, where students may have missed out on the explicit instruction and repeated practice with concepts required to build understanding and fluency. Maths pedagogy has also changed considerably over the last 10 to 15 years, leaving parents and caregivers sometimes unsure of current methodology and therefore less able to assist their children than with subjects such as reading and writing, a situation that may be exacerbated by many parents’ own lack of confidence with maths. It is thus likely that at least some students in your class have fallen behind in mathematics.
As we reconnect with our students, it is critical to accurately identify where each student is at in maths and who needs additional support. Many schools have regular assessments at this time of year anyway, and this is a good starting point for evaluating student learning. Open-ended activities that encourage students to articulate their thinking can also be particularly useful as they can reveal misconceptions or areas of weakness, while allowing students to experience success and to extend themselves if they are able. They are also often less threatening than formal testing and enable collaboration and interaction – two vital learning conditions that were more difficult to facilitate when students worked from home. Against the backdrop of students’ different experiences of remote learning, there may be surprises in your results. Students who have previously performed well in maths may need extra help; others may have progressed more than expected. All will need an approach that is sensitive to the need to re-establish relationships and offer a safe and secure learning environment.
A valuable initial teaching strategy can be to activate students’ prior knowledge when you begin a topic. This follows a developmental approach where you are building on what students already know, which can in turn give them confidence to engage more readily with the learning. Simple activities to tap into students’ current knowledge and views include asking them to respond to a visual prompt, working together to build a concept map, having them explicitly think about and discuss with a partner one or two things they already know about a topic and one question they have, or inviting them to share real-life experiences they have that relate to a topic.
Maths language can be confusing for students, especially since words such as odd have different applications in real life from the mathematical definition. It is also worthwhile ensuring that all students have a shared and accurate understanding of the mathematical terms used for a particular topic. Exploring alternate meanings of words with students and explicitly discussing how they relate to maths can be effective. Anchor charts are also useful to record students’ understanding of the definitions of relevant words and phrases as you begin a topic. You can refer to these as students work and adjust them as students’ understandings become more precise.
It is important to give students who are struggling with a particular concept or topic plenty of time to explore it in multiple ways. This might mean that you cover less ground before the end of the year with these students in favour of making sure that they have a solid understanding of the subject matter in a few areas. If students are moved on too quickly, they may miss out on developing a depth of understanding that will enable them to tackle more complex concepts in future years. Give students hands-on experience with topics whenever possible, and use a variety of supports such as graphic organisers, videos and visual representations. Also consider allowing students to demonstrate their understanding in different ways – verbally, through diagrams, through drama or re-enactments or using multimedia – and link this with more traditional representations of mathematical ideas, such as formal algorithms, when students are ready.
Students may be carrying many anxieties as they settle back into ‘normal’ school life. Indeed, Kids Helpline recorded a 12 percent increase in calls over the first four months of 2020, and a report on this period asserts that many young people have been overwhelmed by the disruption of routines and the social isolation they have experienced (Nicholson, Newell & Collyer, 2020). While maths is a subject that traditionally causes angst for some children, it also holds great potential to engage and inspire students if teachers link it with real-life experiences, structure lessons so all students experience success, build in opportunities to collaborate, and approach it with a sense of fun and wonder, encouraging students to express their theories, opinions and questions as they go. This is particularly important for the most vulnerable students and those for whom remote learning was challenging for whatever reason; but in truth, all students are likely to benefit from such an approach during these extraordinary times. Schools play a vital role in helping children maintain a sense of connection, routine and normalcy during crises such as the one we find ourselves in at the moment (Cahill, Dadvand, Shlezinger, Romeri & Farelly, 2020), and perhaps against the odds, maths is one vehicle through which we can support our students’ emotional and academic development.
Cahill, H., Dadvand, B., Shlezinger, K., Romeri, K and Farelly, A. (2020) Natural disasters and pandemics: supporting student and teacher wellbeing after a crisis Melbourne: Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
Pivot. Educator perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning in Australia and New Zealand [Internet]. April 2020. Available from: https://www.pivotpl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Pivot_StateofEducation_2020_White-Paper.pdf
Nicholson, S., Newell, S. & Collyer, B. (2020) Impacts of Covid-19 on children and young people who contact Kids Helpline. Sydney: yourtown & the Australian Human Rights Commission
Annie Facchinetti, Primary Educator
Annie is the Professional Practice Leader and Literacy Leader at Our Lady Help of Christians Primary School in Melbourne, a freelance education writer and editor, and author of Oxford Maths for Australian Schools and Oxford Maths Ready, a new series of F-6 Teacher Handbooks supporting maths remediation.
Learn more about Oxford Maths Ready.