Relationships, not qualifications, key to better maths outcomes - Education Matters Magazine
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Relationships, not qualifications, key to better maths outcomes

A recent report has shown the relationships educators develop with students in the classroom is more critical to engagement than the teacher’s maths qualification level. Teacher Cleo Westhorpe discusses the implications of the report’s key findings.

Report makes recommendations

The report makes key recommendations to teachers and school leaders.

Only one third of maths teachers in Australia have specialist qualifications but fortuitously – given teacher shortages and mooted exits – a new report shows that relationships and soft skills are more critical to better outcomes in maths.

The report, ‘Boosting Student Engagement in Maths’, commissioned by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT), found that relationships and soft skills from maths teachers led to a better level of student engagement in the subject.

Given 35% of teachers have flagged leaving the profession in five years, a shortage of specialist maths teachers has been a concern for many in the education sector, with only a third of maths teachers having a specialist qualification in the subject.

School teacher and co-founder of student feedback company Pivot, Ms Cleo Westhorpe, says the survey highlights how the ability of teachers to set high expectations for their students while at the same time boosting their confidence is key.

Ms Cleo Westhorpe.

“Many students get discouraged in maths classes when they feel intimidated or lost. Our research shows that those teachers who invest in getting to know their students, promote collaboration in the classroom, and actively seek feedback on their students’ learning experience are highly effective,” she says.

The report ‘Boosting Student Engagement in Maths’ makes five key recommendations, including expanding teaching strategies, focusing on relationships in the classroom, and taking on board student feedback in terms of what’s most effective.

Alternative strategies teachers might employ include using narrative to connect maths to topics of wider every day interest and grouping students at similar ability levels for the completion of projects and assignments.

Mr Allan Dougan, CEO of AAMT, commended the report’s recommendations.

“The decline in student participation rates in maths over the last few decades has been stark with year 12 participation in higher level maths dropping below 10% for the first time in 2022. We need to do something to arrest that,” he says.

“Engagement is critical to retaining that interest in and focus on maths and sciences and we commend this report and its recommendations to school leaders and teachers.”

Building on previous research

Pivot was founded in 2014 to provide educators with evidence-based feedback they can use to improve their teaching.

For this research project, Pivot joined with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers and Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute to study how maths teachers can improve students’ engagement in maths learning.

It surveyed 80 maths teachers and 2,500 of their students, looking at which factors drive the development of strong relationships, the setting of high expectations for learners, and the fostering of positive classroom environments that encourage creative and critical thinking, student autonomy, and a proactive mindset. 

The research also sought to investigate the relationship between teachers’ views on school support for professional learning and a range of other potential factors affecting their teaching practices and students’ perceptions of teaching.

An extensive literature review, desktop research, and statistical testing have shown that great maths teaching has a foundation in:

  • strong relationships between teachers and students
  • teachers having a broad, well-developed pedagogical toolbox; and
  • the critical influence that classroom and school culture have on students’ learning.

The findings of this study build on Pivot’s original research in 2019 with 986 maths teachers and 27,775 student survey responses, titled ‘Learning from the best: what makes an excellent teacher of mathematics’, which explored the attributes and training of top teachers in maths.

Like its earlier study, its latest research identifies a series of practical steps that teachers and school leaders can take to build student engagement in maths learning.

Amongst many elements highlighted by the research, Pivot co-founder Ms Cleo Westhorpe says the spotlight remains on the importance of building a connection with students to support a strong learning.

“From this foundation, we build a learning partnership with our young people that models high expectations, an investment in student wellbeing, and a focus on learner growth and effort to develop positive attitudes and aptitudes for learning,” she says.

“These strong, positive and permeating relationships are conducive to learning growth through the creation of a classroom climate geared for learning. Students are encouraged and motivated when their teachers provide and offer care, interest and respect for all students in their classroom and wider learning community.”

Westhorpe knows from experience that maths classrooms can be unique ecosystems, weighed down by student – and sometimes teacher belief – that they ‘can’t do maths’. 

“Often this is a perspective supported by parents and carers who hold this same belief, but we believe there is definitely space to challenge these views and ‘unlearn’ behaviours, and adjust the negative associations and emotions that can alter perceptions of numeracy learning,” she says.

Westhorpe is a self-confessed ‘big fan’ of British writer Jo Boaler’s work, which builds on American psychologist Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach, which can be applied to maths.

“Like all subjects, maths is and can be fun, creative, challenging and joyful. Working through a mathematical mindset, and breaking down some of our community and self-perceptions of mathematics, can truly boost engagement for our diverse learners,” she says.

In classrooms, Westhorpe says, this looks like emphasising ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ approaches to teaching mathematics, communication that reinforces high expectations, process over product, and progress over performance to reduce maths anxiety and support higher levels of motivation, engagement and achievement, she adds, citing Boaler’s 2019 and 2021 published works.

Next steps

In Westhorpe’s opinion, the report points to important next steps for educators to consider as a teaching profession. 

Firstly, she says, while student perception surveys shouldn’t be taken as an outright proxy for teacher impact on student achievement, teachers are still one of the most, if not the most, important in-school factor impacting student learning growth. 

“Surveys can be seen as a valid and reliable tool for gathering and providing feedback on teaching quality and can provide us, as educators, with valuable feedback on what’s working well in our classrooms to support students’ learning,” she says. 

“Targeted questions reveal specific areas for practice focus and improvement, and feed into self-reflection, observation, coaching and mentoring cycles to help us grow as educators.” 

Student surveys, Westhorpe adds, also give teachers direct feedback on particular elements of the teaching and learning experience from a students’ perspective.

“They [student surveys] encourage frequent conversations about how to direct or redirect the learning where all parties – both students and teachers – have a stake in the outcome.”

Secondly, Pivot’s research highlighted the crucial nature of collective efficacy in schools. 

“New Zealand educator John Hattie describes this as one of the top influences on student achievement. Fostering workplaces where colleagues and leaders collaborate, share wisdom, support each other and feel they are part of a functional team working towards a shared goal will yield the reflective glow of positive learning impacts in the classroom,” Westhorpe says.

“Professional learning communities, education research reading circles, or cross-disciplinary planning: we believe that every teacher in every school has the opportunity to play a vital role in shaping the quality of others.”

The release of ‘Boosting Student Engagement in Maths’ is being accompanied by a webinar series featuring experts from the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and Pivot researchers.

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