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Maths teaching program extended following improved results for students

22 January 2019

A professional development program for maths teachers in South Australia that puts primary school students two months ahead of their peers has been extended.

Thinking Maths is a professional learning program developed by the South Australian Department for Education for Years 6-9 maths teachers. In 2018, one of the largest randomised controlled trials (RCTs) ever undertaken in Australian education found the program was having a significant impact on maths learning outcomes in middle school students.

The trial, the first of three commissioned by not-for-profit Evidence for Learning and conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), involved more than 7000 students in 158 metropolitan and rural schools in the state. Its findings prompted the South Australian Department for Education to extend Thinking Maths to include two new offerings: Thinking Maths Masterclass and Thinking Maths Senior Years. Pilot programs began in October 2018 and will run until March 2019, with continued monitoring by ACER.

ACER Principal Research Fellow Dr Hilary Hollingsworth led the original trial and says it highlights the value of evidence from research in improving learning.

‘We know that building an evidence-base is critical to identifying what really works in education,’ Dr Hollingsworth said. ‘Working closely with the South Australia Department for Education to conduct this rigorous randomised controlled trial, ACER has contributed reliable and useful evidence about teacher professional learning and factors that support improved student learning outcomes in mathematics.’

Thinking Maths aims to help teachers make mathematics learning deeper and more engaging through 30 hours of face-to-face professional learning over three school terms. The sessions combine practical activities, such as working together to examine the characteristics of quality mathematics tasks that develop conceptual understanding, with learning about the research into tried-and-tested strategies, interspersed with opportunities for group discussion and reflection.

The results were largely positive, with students of teachers taking part in the program making, on average, one month’s additional progress in their learning. Significant differences were noted between year levels, with primary students making the largest gains. Additionally, the program was found to boost participating teachers’ knowledge, professional identity and self-efficacy. An added bonus is the program’s relatively low cost, at around $149 AUD per student per year.

ACER Senior Research Fellow and trial statistician Dr Katherine Dix is leading the evaluations of the pilots of the new Thinking Maths Masterclass and Senior Years programs. While the Senior Years program provides similar professional learning opportunities for secondary school teachers, the Masterclass program builds on the ‘train the trainer’ model.

‘The pilot of the Masterclass program will involve high-performing Thinking Maths teachers participating in six days of face-to-face professional learning and one planning day,’ Dr Dix said. ‘The aim is to train participants to become Thinking Maths champions at their school site, and work with colleagues to embed the pedagogy school-wide, and system-wide.’

Dr Dix said recognition of the importance of continuity of learning as students transition from lower secondary to senior secondary mathematics drove the development of Thinking Maths Senior Years. It is modelled on the original program but tailored specifically to meet the needs of Years 10-12 mathematics teachers.

Results of two other randomised controlled trials commissioned by Evidence for Learning through its Learning Impact Fund will be released in 2019. ■

Further reading:

Read the evaluation here: http://evidenceforlearning.org.au/lif/our-projects/thinkingmaths/

Read more about the use of randomised controlled trials in education, including a recent forum that took place in Newcastle, NSW, here.

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