Dr Sofya Lyakhova and Dr Howard Tanner present a view about the development of a National Network of Excellence for Mathematics
The recent announcement (3.11.16.) by Education Secretary Kirsty Williams that a National Network of Excellence for Mathematics (NNEM) is to be created should be welcomed by parents, teachers and students in Wales.
In these troubled economic times, it is very appropriate that the Welsh Government should state that ‘reform in education is a national mission’. We must ensure that all young people in Wales are given the opportunity to reach the highest standards and that their ambitions are raised to strive for excellence.
The importance of mathematics within this mission cannot be overemphasised. Undoubtedly, a strong foundation in mathematics is essential for a modern knowledge-based economy as well as to the development of well-rounded individuals. The foundations for this development are deeply rooted in the experience young people receive throughout their time in school, from age 3 to 18. Mathematics teachers are the key in this and high quality Teacher Professional Development is an essential component in achieving these ambitions.
There is good and even excellent teaching occurring in Wales every day, but this is not uniformly the case. Wales’ performance in the international PISA tests continues to be a cause for concern. However, recent examination results by higher attaining students show promise. In particular, the work of the Further Mathematics Support Programme Wales, using innovative delivery strategies, has largely closed the uptake gap that existed between Wales and England in Further Mathematics.
The 2014 OECD report on improving schools in Wales recognised some of the strengths in the Welsh education system, but identified challenges which included the lack of a long-term vision, an inadequate school improvement infrastructure, and the need for a clear implementation strategy owned by all stakeholders.
We believe that the NNEM should provide the vision and sustainable infrastructure required to share the best of existing practice across Wales, and to develop in teachers the deep knowledge and understanding of how children learn mathematics, required to develop the subject in the new curriculum. It is vitally important that the new infrastructure should encompass all ages groups, from 3–18.
The NNEM should involve the active participation of Mathematics teachers from throughout Wales, supported by colleagues in regional consortia and in close collaboration with researchers in Mathematics and Mathematics Education based in universities. This collaboration should develop an exciting new approach to professional development in mathematics, which takes account of the latest research into the teaching and learning of mathematics, whilst remaining closely grounded in schools.
Moving Towards Excellence in Mathematics Teaching
It is our vision that the work of the NNEM should be based around a national network, involving lead practitioners of mathematics teaching engaged in researching their own practice. This form of practitioner research has long been recognised as being particularly effective in developing teachers’ knowledge and understanding of learning and teaching. However, sometimes it has been criticised for lacking rigour and failing to communicate to a wider audience when it is conducted in isolation.
We believe that the NNEM teacher researchers should interact with partners in higher education, who will ensure that their research is rigorous, that current research evidence is considered, and that teacher researchers collaborate in a wider network. Furthermore, the work of the teacher researchers should feed directly into workshops run throughout Wales, ensuring that their work reaches a wider audience. Outcomes from the workshops should be published on the web via Hwb.
Further developments should include an annual national conference for teachers of mathematics at all levels at which the work of such practitioners can be celebrated. This should feed naturally into the development of a new professional journal, Teaching Mathematics in Wales.
The recent report of the Mathematics Task and Finish Group included recommendations about identification of good practice that currently exists and the nature of excellence in mathematics teaching. This should be achieved through the work of the NNEM. In particular, accreditation of programmes to develop, support and reward leadership in Mathematics should be created as a matter of priority.
There is no simple philosopher’s stone for developing excellence in mathematics teaching. All mathematics teaching is sited in specific contexts with particular students, who bring their own prior knowledge and beliefs to the situation. However, although excellent mathematics teaching is difficult to define, when excellent teaching occurs, it is reliably recognisable due to the ‘deep progress’ that is made by students. Deep progress means students learn more mathematics, get better at learning mathematics and feel more confident about their own developing mathematical abilities. In particular, they develop mathematical ambition and strive for excellence.
This should be the ultimate aim of the NNEM