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Educational engagement in mathematics


21 February 2017

Professor Janette Bobis recently attended the 10th Congress of European Research in Mathematics Education in Ireland
Professor Janette Bobis recently attended the 10th Congress of European Research in Mathematics Education in Ireland

Student engagement in mathematics is much more than just ensuring students complete the work and are on task, according to Professor Janette Bobis.

Having recently attended the 10th Congress of European Research in Mathematics Education in Ireland, Professor Bobis spoke to Dublin’s Inside Education and gave her views on the topic in an exclusive podcast.

“Engagement to me is where a child is behaviourally, intellectually and emotionally in tune with mathematics,” she said.

“It’s where they might have a passion for the content, so where having fun is important, it’s not sufficient to maintain their interest.

“In turn, a lot of teachers might think that engagement is making sure that children are on task.

“Yes, they need to be on task but more than that they really need to have a deep understanding of what’s going on.

“With that deep understanding, often they develop a drive for wanting to know more.”

Professor Bobis delivered a paper at the Conference entitled Creating a distinctive practice-based teacher education program through a research informed approach, and said that student engagement has long been a challenge that teachers have faced for quite some time, especially in mathematics.

“You can’t expect children to be 100 per cent engaged, all day, every day, in the same topic or content area.

“For example, I’ve worked with teachers that have said, ‘Well, I teach the top class. My children are all excellent at mathematics. They do all the work.’

“So, they assume that they are engaged and that they enjoy it. But when they actually ask the children, ‘Do you enjoy maths?’ quite often, even those children who are very good at it, will say no.

“We can’t assume that just because a person is good at a subject that they enjoy it.”

Professor Bobis said that while being good at a particular subject does help that child to develop that enjoyment and that passion for learning more, often it’s helpful for teachers to utilise more creative strategies to foster engagement.

“So, to advise a teacher on finding out whether their children are engaged or not, I would recommend they ask the children - question them about the things they might enjoy doing and why they might enjoy doing it.

“Sometimes it’s useful to ask through the deployment of a metaphor. For example, ‘if mathematics was a food, what would it be?’

“Some might answer that it’s chocolate and that they want more or some might answer that it’s Brussel sprouts and that they don’t like the taste but understand that it’s good for them.

“So, you learn a lot about children’s enjoyment, engagement and interest in maths when they refer to it as something else.”

Professor Janette Bobis is a mathematics educator and researcher in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.

She teaches in the areas of primary and early childhood mathematics education and curriculum studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels.