New on the website: Inquiry and curriculumAs Inquiry Maths becomes more widely known, teachers are asking how they can incorporate the prompts on the website into their schemes of learning. More broadly, they are asking whether inquiry classrooms that promote curiosity and student agency are compatible with covering the content of a mathematics curriculum. In response, we have created a new page called Inquiry and Curriculum that can be reached through the link on the menu bar or by clicking here.
Shanghai Maths: teacher led and student centred?
In November 2015 the Shanghai Exchange reached the secondary school stage with maths teachers from China teaching year 7 and 8 classes in English schools. The maths hubs organised observations of the lessons, which were accompanied by an introduction to Shanghai Maths from teachers who had visited China in September and an analytical discussion after the lessons. The two teachers from the Sussex Maths Hub who ran the event I attended did an excellent job of reflecting on their experiences in Shanghai in an insightful way. Unlike the Schools Minister who writes that the exchange is about showing teachers Shanghai's “perfect formula for learning," they acknowledged the good practice that already exists in the UK. The two teachers from Shanghai also demonstrated a highly professional and critical approach when they analysed their lessons with the observers.
It is indicative of the consistency of practice in Shanghai that the event did not teach me much more about the system than I had learned from attending a hub event during the primary exchange. In the post I wrote after that event, I characterised Shanghai Maths as teacher-led and focused exclusively on mathematical concepts and procedures (as opposed to inquiry which can be student-led and involves reflection and regulation). However, since then, the organisers of the exchange have described Shanghai Maths as “teacher led but student centred.” While this phrase is intriguing, it (or, rather, half of it) proves to be misplaced.
If we take ‘child-centred’ to mean that teachers adjust their teaching by taking account of students’ levels of understanding, then at no stage did the lesson I observed appear to be child-centred. There was neither assessment for learning, nor
assessment of learning. Questioning was focussed on getting the required answer and did not probe students’ understanding. Exercise books were treated as note books without any evidence of a teacher-student dialogue. While it is easy to discuss a lesson in terms of what it did not contain, I have seen teachers in the UK threatened with competency proceedings for teaching lessons that did not include regular assessment from which to show progress. One fellow observer commented to me that a UK teacher might be in trouble if observed teaching the lesson.
Interestingly, then, the Department for Education’s promotion of Shanghai methods might founder on the systemic demands it already makes of teachers through Ofsted and senior leaders. Of course, these considerations in no way count against Shanghai Maths, but they do remind us how difficult it will be to transplant the method into the English education system.
The description of ‘child-centred’, it transpires, relates more to the norms embedded in the culture of Shanghai classrooms. The exchange organisers herald such norms as “students commenting on each other’s work” and a “relentless insistence on pupils giving reasons." These were not evident in the lesson I observed. Indeed, the lesson was designed purely at a mathematical level with a focus on precise questions that aimed to develop understanding in small steps. There was no attempt to develop what Professor Paul Cobb has called social and socio-mathematical norms about how to discuss and explain.
It seems to me that if these norms are to become common in English classrooms, then some thought will have to be given to their development. Paradoxically, the Shanghai model might not be the best vehicle to do this because the social and socio-mathematical seem to be taken for granted at the stage of designing the lesson. Rather, an inquiry model, in which students learn how to construct mathematical understanding, is better suited to achieving these norms.
Even if students had been expected to give reasons in the lesson, Shanghai Maths still cannot be considered to be child-centred. There is no acknowledgement of or adjustment for students’ different levels of prior knowledge, no alternative routes to understanding the concept, no encouragement of student questioning and certainly no opportunity for students to participate in the direction of the lesson as would occur in inquiry lessons. Rather, Shanghai Maths is mathematics-centred or, it is more accurate to say, centred on a conception of the subject as a series of tiny increments in a logical progression.
This definition is far from the idea of mathematics as a creative human construction that you would find in inquiry classrooms. The teacher has a script – an expertly designed script, but a script nonetheless. Shanghai Maths is, therefore, a teacher-led, tightly-controlled model of teaching.
Postscript: It was argued on social media that this post makes general comments about Shanghai Maths based on the observation of only one lesson. Even if this were true, another post about a different Shanghai lesson in south-west London shows that the lesson I observed is not atypical. The lessons were similar and, in some respects, identical. The criticism on social media might have originated in the fact that the analysis above ignores the hubs' preferred analytical framework. The hubs encouraged observers to study lessons in terms of ideas, such as concept/non-concept and intelligent practice, that are said to underpin Shanghai teaching. However, the concepts of child-centred and social and socio-mathematical norms have broader relevance and greater validity when analysing the introduction of a model of teaching into a new environment.
Mathematics by Inquiry
The Australian government has announced funding of $7.4 million for the ‘Mathematics by Inquiry’ project in an attempt to improve the teaching of maths from early years to year 10. The project, which runs from November 2015 to June 2018, will prepare and disseminate inquiry resources for use in classrooms across the country. Alongside the resources, the project will provide teacher training related to assessing higher order thinking and supporting inquiry in STEM contexts. The project represents a huge opportunity to develop ideas about mathematical inquiry and create a model of inquiry that can have a system-wide impact. However, in the spirit of critical inquiry, we should examine the project proposal more carefully.
Firstly, we should heed the experience of two previous large-scale European projects to promote inquiry-based learning in maths. The PRIMAS and Fibonacci projects ran between 2010 and 2013 in 12 European countries. The €9 million spent on the projects went to universities, with nearly €1 million going to three universities in the UK. One problem with the projects was their aim to promote inquiry in mathematics and science. This led to confusion, particularly in the PRIMAS theoretical documents, about inquiry in the two subjects. The inquiry processes, which are different in maths and science, were conflated into one set of generic stages (see this article for an extended discussion). Another problem has been the low impact of the projects on classrooms. In the UK, the universities promoted materials they had already developed in a handful of one-day conferences with highly-paid marquee speakers and restricted audiences. The teaching community is left with some disparate web-based collections of resources and training materials that hardly anyone knows exist.
Secondly, we should analyse the statements from the two organisations chosen to manage the project in order to understand their conceptions of mathematical inquiry. The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) were invited to submit 'desktop reviews' of the current state of maths teaching in Australia before being confirmed as the managers of the new project. Their answers to question 2 are of most interest to us. The question was: What is the role of inquiry-based pedagogy in the teaching of mathematics? The AAS used its answer as an opportunity to raise objections to inquiry as a legitimate pedagogy in maths:
The term ‘inquiry-based pedagogy’ is problematic for mathematics education and terms such as a problem solving approach or an investigative approach are more commonly used. The pedagogy of inquiry-based learning is founded on the principle that students should be actively and socially engaged in the process of learning, constructing new concepts based on their current knowledge and understanding. Inquiry-based learning, as described in the research literature, often refers to highly student driven approaches where the student decides the questions to ask, the research methods to use, and different learning occurs for different students. This very open student-led interpretation of inquiry-based pedagogy has only a very small place in mathematics.
Instead the best investigative pedagogies for mathematics use ‘well engineered’ mathematical problems, where engagement in the problem solving process individually and with others and supported by the teacher will assist in the development of targeted concepts, or strategic skills, or the ability to transfer knowledge. (p. 11)
This response is disappointing. Yes, inquiry teachers structure and guide learning (see levels of inquiry), but their ultimate aim is to develop independent inquirers who leave school able and enthusiastic to engage in open inquiry. The AAS define inquiry as problem solving in which the teacher 'engineers' the process from start to finish.
Even more concerning is the AAMT document, which repeats exactly the same mistake made in the European projects; the document states that "there are clear parallels between science inquiry-based approaches and contemporary thinking about pedagogy in mathematics" (p. 6). It then lists six generic inquiry 'principles': articulating goals, making connections, fostering engagement, differentiating challenges, structuring lessons, and promoting fluency and transfer. According to the AAMT, mathematics is "a practical vehicle for implementing these principles" (p. 7). Where are the processes associated with mathematical inquiry? Questioning, noticing, conjecturing, generalising, deducing and proving get hardly a mention in the AAMT’s document or no mention at all.
The most interesting aspect of the project is its aim to base the inquiry resources on real-world contexts. I have written here about concerns at using 'real life' in mathematics classrooms, particularly at secondary school level, because it can inhibit the development of abstract reasoning. However, the Australian project has the opportunity to evaluate the role of real-world contexts in the inquiry learning of mathematics across phases of education.
The Mathematics by Inquiry project is a great opportunity. It should seek to develop a distinctive approach to inquiry that is appropriate to the discipline of mathematics. Furthermore, the project managers should utilise the expertise that already exists in Australian schools, rather than, as in the case of the European projects, allocate the resources solely to higher academic institutions. In this way they will not only have greater credibility, but they will also have a greater impact.
Kath Murdoch (author of The Power of Inquiry and a primary teacher, international speaker and consultant based in Australia) responded to this article on twitter by saying that, "The focus should be on inquiry specific to the discipline and on generic, shared inquiry skills and processes." This comment opens up new avenues for inquiry. How are the generic and specifically mathematical inquiry processes merged in classrooms? Is the balance the same in different phases of education? You can follow Kath on twitter @kjinquiry.