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Melanie Stratford and students at St Benedict’s Primary School, Canberra. Photo © Rhonda Faragher.

Everybody counts: Maths teaching for children with Down syndrome

Mainstream schools are increasingly providing inclusive education for children with Down syndrome, and new research indicates that students with Down syndrome can learn important mathematics in this environment.

Students with Down syndrome are increasingly experiencing education alongside their peers in inclusive mainstream classrooms, and the latest Australian research indicates that these students can learn a great deal of mathematics in primary school with good teaching and the right support.

Research by Dr Rhonda Faragher and Professor Doug Clarke from Australian Catholic University and Associate Professor Barbara Clarke from Monash University, facilitated by ACER, investigates the practices of teaching teams working in inclusive mathematics education settings. Their research has found that students with Down syndrome can learn and become more confident with mathematics when educators are able to provide appropriate teaching and support. 

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is the practice of welcoming and valuing all learners and supporting their diverse learning needs together in the general classroom. It differs from integration, where students attend the same classroom but undertake different work with a teacher aide, or co-location, where they attend some lessons but are withdrawn from others.

‘Our research in primary mathematics classes investigated the practices of 15 teaching teams in Victoria and the ACT,’ Dr Faragher said. ‘Our key research question is to understand how educators provide the teaching and support that offers the best outcomes when teaching year-level material from the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics.’

The study has revealed that specific professional learning for teachers is critical to successful learning for students with Down syndrome in primary mathematics classrooms.

Key research findings

Key findings of the project indicate that including students with Down syndrome in primary mathematics is achievable, but even highly experienced and accomplished teachers feel unprepared at first.

To better support them, teachers of students with Down syndrome need both an initial boost and a staged program of further professional learning throughout the school year.

‘Teachers and teaching teams benefit from initial professional learning that clarifies the nature of both inclusive practice and Down syndrome, including practices that help students learn to “do school”,’ said Associate Professor Barbara Clarke. ‘More specifically, teaching teams benefit from understanding the effective use of resources, including calculators, in mathematics education. A calculator for students with Down syndrome is a bit like a pair of glasses for a short-sighted person.'

‘A professional learning program helps teaching teams understand, for example, why a student with Down syndrome might need a calculator to calculate percentage.’

Developing professional learning

According to Professor Doug Clarke, the research indicates that ongoing professional learning is crucial, as teachers’ expertise in using an inclusive approach develops over time. ‘The research indicates that teaching teams need a reduced emphasis on syndrome-specific information and an increased emphasis on how to teach mathematics to students with Down syndrome as the school year progresses.

‘What we have found is that the professional learning needs of teaching teams evolve as they develop professionally, and understand how much students with Down syndrome are able to achieve, across the school year.'

Developing inclusive practice

While the research indicates that teaching teams benefit from an ongoing professional learning program, the results of the study indicate that inclusive practice also develops over the year for both teaching teams and students. ‘Teachers became more positive towards inclusion and more focussed on mathematics over the year,’ said Dr Faragher. ‘Students themselves may need time to settle into the class, and in the case of younger children, settle into school, and to understand what is expected of them. After this, they are able to focus more on learning mathematics.'

‘Interestingly, an inclusive approach matters as much in the professional learning of teaching teams as it does in the learning of students with Down syndrome,’ Dr Faragher said.

‘Mathematics education outcomes are influenced by the way teaching teams interact. The research indicates that the most effective teaching and student learning occurs where all members of a teaching team have a clear understanding of the lesson plan and the expected learning outcome for the student.’

From this study, it is clear that students with Down syndrome can learn important mathematics from the Australian Curriculum and that their teaching teams are strong advocates for their right to do so.  ■

More information:

The Inclusive practices in the teaching of mathematics: Supporting the work of effective primary teachers research project is facilitated by ACER through the ACER Foundation and managed by ACER Senior Research Fellow Ray Peck. Funding is provided by Gandel Philanthropy, one of Australia’s largest independent family philanthropic funds, with the support of Down Syndrome Australia. 

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