Five Minutes With Associate Professor Judy Anderson

20 June 2016

Associate Professor Judy Anderson says there is no doubt that passionate, enthusiastic teachers make a difference, particularly to students' learning and engagement with mathematics
Associate Professor Judy Anderson says there is no doubt that passionate, enthusiastic teachers make a difference, particularly to students' learning and engagement with mathematics

We talk to the Director of the STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy, Associate Professor Judy Anderson on what she is most passionate about and how the University is taking a leadership role in Science and Mathematics teacher education.

What are you most passionate about in relation to your teaching and research?

I am passionate about mathematics education from early years to university - I believe all students are capable of learning mathematics and that mathematics can be inspiring if taught well. Using problem solving approaches to learning mathematics helps students learn how to approach real-world problems, how to engage with real issues facing society, and how to use their knowledge to ask meaningful questions and interrogate data. I have conducted research into teachers’ problem solving practices as well as middle year’s student engagement. There is no doubt that passionate, enthusiastic teachers make a difference, particularly to students’ learning and engagement with mathematics.

Another approach which seeks to further engage school students with real world issues includes grappling with cross-disciplinary problems from the STEM subjects. STEM education has recently been featured in public policy debates and in the media as a strategy to help address disengagement of students with the STEM subjects in schools, and with STEM careers in the work force. This provides us with an opportunity to promote the relevance and importance of mathematics in helping to address some of the world’s most important issues. As Director of the STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy, I am able to work with teachers to design cross-disciplinary tasks, lessons and units of work that make a difference to students’ engagement with the STEM subjects.

What is the key issue facing teachers and educators today?

While many mathematics teachers are passionate about their subject, they frequently complain about the amount of content in the curriculum and the pressure to prepare students for high-stakes testing. Both the curriculum and assessment regimes can act as powerful constraints on teachers’ willingness to engage students in problem solving. If we want our students to engage with real world problems, they need time to work in teams to explore ideas, and consider different possibilities and approaches to addressing challenges. Many teachers agree this is important but feel they do not have time to devote to such endeavours, particularly when problem solving is not assessed in high stakes assessment.

What are your hopes for Australia’s secondary school system?

Given the impending retirement of many of our mathematics teachers, we do need to find ways to provide more qualified and passionate secondary mathematics teachers for our schools. Over the past 14 years at the University of Sydney, I have had the pleasure of working with some exceptional student teachers who qualified to become secondary mathematics teachers - several of them are now leaders in their schools and are making real change to the ways mathematics is taught and learnt. They love teaching and they love inspiring their students. However, many talented mathematics students do not view teaching as an attractive career choice, so we need to find new ways to promote teaching and in particular, mathematics teaching as a viable alternative to careers in business and finance. I would be delighted if more members of society valued mathematics and the important role mathematics plays in helping us to solve real world problems.

In your opinion, how has the teaching profession changed over the past two decades?

The teaching profession has changed significantly over the past two decades - on one hand we now have national teaching standards, and all teachers are required to be registered as teachers, and to participate in ongoing professional learning. In addition, we now have a national curriculum and national testing of students through NAPLAN. These changes indicate a more compliant and regulated system with schools and teachers more accountable than ever before. While some of these changes have provided a greater focus on the need for life-long learning and self-reflection, others can take teachers away from the work of teaching in classrooms. Teachers tell me they now spend even more time on administrative tasks than on preparing quality lessons for their students.

On the other hand, we have many more technological tools to aid teaching and learning in classrooms, teachers more readily communicate with, and learn from, each other through social media networks, and through access to powerful new technologies, students are willing to explore their own ideas and learn by themselves. This has opened up new ways to work for teachers with many new possibilities on the horizon - it is an exciting time in education with teachers exploring ways to connect students between schools and with schools in other countries.

What role do you think the University of Sydney can play in relation to teacher education and training in the years to come?

The University of Sydney is well placed to provide a leadership role in Science and Mathematics teacher education - we have outstanding programs to support pre-service teachers, we provide many scholarship opportunities for our students, and we can leverage the STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy partner schools to provide mentoring and school placements. Our programs explore ways we can connect student teachers with real classrooms and teachers from the beginning of their program - through the annual Alumni Conference, secondary mathematics teachers connect with student teachers, share experiences, and provide mentoring. In addition, generous scholarships are available for mathematics and science pre-service teachers who are committed to working in disadvantaged schools. This initiative has the potential to alter the aspirations of students from these schools so that they consider doing STEM related degrees at university as well as pursuing STEM careers. The expansion of the STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy will also enable us to continue to build powerful partnerships with schools who can mentor our pre-service students.

Another exciting initiative offered through the Faculty of Education and Social Work involves specialiastion in the primary pre-service program. My colleagues have begun to implement specialist training in mathematics and science. Having primary school teachers with outstanding capability in mathematics and science education as well as leadership skills will enable them to support other primary school teachers to promote mathematics and science in primary school classrooms.