Empowering teachers

By Tim Groenendyk

In her first Linkage Project
, Janette Bobis investigated a problem in the middle years of school: students dropping out of mathematics classes. In her second Linkage Project Bobis and her colleagues aim to empower the very people who can rectify the problem: teachers.

Between the school years of 5 and 8 many students experience a slump in their learning or, at best, a plateau.

It’s a period when students become less engaged in their studies and start considering opting out of subjects, mathematics especially. But Bobis didn’t believe this problem was merely the result of early adolescence meeting a change in schooling environment.

“Some bits of that are true. However, in our previous ARC grant when we looked at the transition we found the problem was linked to motivation and engagement,” explained Bobis, who for the first time sees herself in the role of chief investigator on an ARC Linkage project.

Research has shown that students who are motivated and engaged are capable of planning their work, can identify what they know and take steps to fill gaps in their knowledge. They are what Bobis describes as self-directed, or self-regulated, learners.

“Teachers can’t teach children to be self regulated in their learning unless they are themselves. So our goal to get to the students is to actually improve those skills of the teachers,” said Bobis.

To achieve this, teachers need to do more than attend professional development courses, they need to also recognize their individual weaknesses in knowledge and be empowered to update it themselves.

Although mathematics education has faced this problem for some time, Bobis and her colleagues noticed that very little research was being done concerning motivation and engagement and the self-regulated learning of teachers in that discipline.

“That’s one of the reasons why we are trying to specialise within mathematics. There are some issues in the field of maths that aren’t in other subject areas, particularly if we’re dealing with year 5 and 6 teachers."

Often these teachers’ ‘content knowledge’ of mathematics is not as robust as it is in other subjects. Furthermore, early high school teachers may have excellent content knowledge of maths but their pedagogical skills - actually teaching maths to children struggling with understanding – isn’t as strong.

This project – "Empowering teachers of middle-years mathematics: becoming self-directed learners” – sees Bobis and her fellow investigators Jennifer Way and Judith Anderson continuing their partnership with the Catholic Schools Office, this time collaborating with the Broken Bay Diocese.

Early in the course of the previous Linkage with their partner Catholic Education Office, Sydney, their work attracted the attention of the Broken Bay Diocese.

“Broken Bay have similar concerns with their students in mathematics. We were already working with them in a professional capacity but they had no ownership over what we were doing. That’s when we decided we needed to do something much more tangible, evidence based.

“When the CEO Sydney ARC Linkage ended,” said Bobis, “you could see where the research should go next. We’d already started our conversations with Broken Bay so it was just a natural direction for the research to go.”