Achieving the 'light bulb' moment - Education Matters Magazine
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Achieving the ‘light bulb’ moment

One of the rewards of being a Mathematics teacher is seeing that “light bulb moment”, as students finally begin to understand a problem.

That’s according to Michelle Fry, Acting Head of Department Mathematics at Redcliffe State High School, who is championing the Maths Pathway teaching and learning model at the Queensland school. The hands-on program has led to a dramatic increase in enthusiasm in Mathematics across the school, Michelle explains, with the journey beginning last year.

Michelle says that she and numeracy coach Lauren Martin-Gaskell were looking for a Mathematics program that centred on targeted learning and instruction, collaborative group work and one-on-one feedback.

As part of her role on the Head of Department discussion group, Michelle was invited by Maths Pathway founder Justin Matthys to hear about the program. The discovery led Michelle and Lauren to participate in an engaging two-day presentation last year, where they learnt about the program’s tailored and personalised approach to Mathematics.

The model means that students can work at their own pace, whether they are advanced, behind, or on par for their year level, unleashing their full potential. Maths Pathway caters to each student’s individual level by identifying their knowledge, as well as any gaps in their learning, across the F-10 curriculum. No assumptions are made of student knowledge based on their age, meaning a Year 5 student could be learning Year 10 algebra. Diagnostic, formative and summative assessments provide data that feeds into an online platform, which provides students with work in their zone of proximal development.

When you consider the classic learning model, and the way many of us were educated, teachers have typically been required to teach all students the same curriculum level content.

For years, standardised testing and whole-class lectures have been the norm for most Australian students. The outcomes of this approach can create major obstacles to progress.

Maths Pathway is driven by the belief that all students should be able to learn Maths in a way that allows them to thrive. Through its program, student learning is supported with content tailored to the Australian and state curriculums and a model which encourages independent learning alongside peer collaboration.

Students complete fortnightly tests to check in with their progress and as they demonstrate mastery of the concepts, the content that they are ready for next is automatically generated for each student.

Phillip Morrison, Maths teacher at Redcliffe State High School, is pleased with the results.

“The biggest challenge with being a teacher is manipulating the curriculum so each student identifies with it and they can all engage and learn,” Phillip says.

“In the past, understanding the knowledge your students have on what you are teaching was sometimes like guesswork.

“With Maths for example, if you’re teaching Year 7 fractions and the student has missed something in Year 5 or 6, you often don’t know at what point they stopped understanding. Was it multiplication tables or highest common factor?

“I then had to differentiate for them so they understand it, all the while making it harder for those at a different level.”

Michelle says the state high school, of more than 1300 Year 7-12 students, introduced Maths Pathway in 2016. Before Maths Pathway, students were placed into groups based on their individual capability.

She explains that Maths Pathway’s focus on personalised tests has been key to each student’s personal development. The regular assessment enables teachers to obtain instant data on each student and allows teachers to plan more effectively for individual learning needs.

She says this would otherwise have been difficult, and not to mention time consuming, in a traditional classroom setting.

“Maths Pathway is an incredible program. It is designed in a way for a student to achieve success at their level. The curriculum is so large and there’s so many iterations but Maths Pathway has it all there,” Michelle says.

Maths Pathway has documented high results in its 2016 Impact Report, which found that Year 7 students grew an average of 218 per cent faster than they were before they started using the program.

Maths Pathway attributes this to an individualised learning platform that allows teachers to know exactly how their students are understanding and learning their lessons.

After students have completed a diagnostic test, the program creates modules to build on their knowledge and fill in any gaps in their learning. Michelle says that because teachers are aware of the levels and growth rates of each of their students, they are able to provide informed, targeted feedback.

“We have found our students are keen to get feedback from their teachers. Even if it’s the fourth lesson in the day, students are insisting, as they’re so motivated to grow. These students are not what we’d typically call ‘high achieving’,” Michelle says.

“In terms of the growth, if they have a minimum of 133 percent all year, that means that they are achieving more than one year of growth in a year.

“Under the old model, we’d only achieve half a year of growth. The ability to observe instant data is truly phenomenal.”

Phillip says the school runs a bring-your-own-device program, which ensures students are familiar with their devices and can work on their program at home.

“I had one student last cycle who had completed 17 modules and had 467 per cent growth in their learning. They could see the gaps in their learning and wouldn’t have been able to complete so many modules at school.”

Phillip says that each week, he will have at least three students achieving more than 400 per cent growth and another five around the 300 mark, and only two to three achieving less than 100 per cent growth. Students love a competition, he says, which bolsters results.

Most importantly, it demonstrates to students that they can determine their own path and breaks down the fallacy that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at Maths.

It’s not all computer based, Michelle adds, as the model offers a healthy balance of book-work, rich tasks, and longer projects. Students are encouraged to develop their independent learning skills, while teachers are there to assist them with targeted instruction and one-on-one feedback should they encounter any difficulties.

To further strengthen their independence, Michelle adds that this contemporary teaching and learning model encourages students to constantly justify their thinking, allowing them to reflect on the reasons for their decisions.

Teachers also plan for students to be involved in small focused learning groups, as well as incorporating rich learning tasks that promote investigative and collaborative learning.

It all returns to Carol Dweck’s theory of the growth mindset. The critically-acclaimed author theorised that our intelligence is not a fixed trait, but can be developed through effort, quality teaching and persistence. The results are documented in her 2007 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

“If students have a growth mindset they know that they need to develop. Before Maths Pathway, some students did have a fixed mindset and they hated Maths. If students don’t understand it, they’re simply not going to engage,” Michelle says.

“Under Maths Pathway, students have quickly discovered pleasure from the subject without any of the leftover unhappiness or confusion from before.

It’s really important students find their love of Maths as it’s the higher Mathematical subjects that will solve the problems of today’s world.”

Michelle says that teachers who warmly embrace mistakes, praise effort and strategies, and avoid labelling their students as either good or bad at Maths have the best chance of fostering a growth mindset.

Year 8 student Isabelle Costello says her strength was once in English, but thanks to Maths Pathway, her interest in Mathematics has increased greatly, providing her with a well-rounded education.

“Maths is a lot more enjoyable now because it focuses on my individual requirements. The most challenging part of learning before Maths Pathway was I felt some areas of my lesson were rushed. Now I can finally focus on the areas I need to improve on.”