WitCH 40: The Primary Struggle

This is one of those WitCHes we’re going to regret. Ideally, we’d just write a straight post but we just have no time at the moment, and so we’ll WitCH it, hoping some loyal commenters will do some of the hard work. But, in the end, the thing will still be there and we’ll still have to come back to polish it off.

This WitCH, which fits perfectly with the discussion on this post, is an article (paywalled – Update: draft here) in the Journal of Mathematical Behaviour, titled

Elementary teachers’ beliefs on the role of struggle in the mathematics classroom

The article is by (mostly) Monash University academics, and a relevant disclosure: we’ve previously had significant run-ins with two of the paper’s authors. The article appeared in March and was promoted by Monash University a couple weeks ago, after which it received the knee-jerk positive treatment from education reporters stenographers.

Here is the abstract of the article:

Reform-oriented approaches to mathematics instruction view struggle as critical to learning; however, research suggests many teachers resist providing opportunities for students to struggle. Ninety-three early-years Australian elementary teachers completed a questionnaire about their understanding of the role of struggle in the mathematics classroom. Thematic analysis of data revealed that most teachers (75 %) held positive beliefs about struggle, with four overlapping themes emerging: building resilience, central to learning mathematics, developing problem solving skills and facilitating peer-to-peer learning. Many of the remaining teachers (16 %) held what constituted conditionally positive beliefs about struggle, emphasising that the level of challenge provided needed to be suitable for a given student and adequately scaffolded. The overwhelmingly positive characterisation of student struggle was surprising given prior research but consistent with our contention that an emphasis on growth mindsets in educational contexts over the last decade has seen a shift in teachers’ willingness to embrace struggle.

And, here is the first part of the introduction:

Productive struggle has been framed as a meta-cognitive ability connected to student perseverance (Pasquale, 2016). It involves students expending effort “in order to make sense of mathematics, to figure out something that is not immediately apparent” (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007, p. 387). Productive struggle is one of several broadly analogous terms that have emerged from the research literature in the past three decades. Others include: “productive failure” (Kapur, 2008, p. 379), “controlled floundering” (Pogrow, 1988, p. 83), and the “zone of confusion” (Clarke, Cheeseman, Roche, & van der Schans, 2014, p. 58). All these terms describe a similar phenomenon involving the intersection of particular learner and learning environment characteristics in a mathematics classroom context. On the one hand, productive struggle suggests that students are cultivating a persistent disposition underpinned by a growth mindset when confronted with a problem they cannot immediately solve. On the other hand, it implies that the teacher is helping to orchestrate a challenging, student-centred, learning environment characterised by a supportive classroom culture. Important factors contributing to the creation of such a learning environment include the choice of task, and the structure of lessons. Specifically, it is frequently suggested that teachers need to incorporate more cognitively demanding mathematical tasks into their lessons and employ problem-based approaches to learning where students are afforded opportunities to explore concepts prior to any teacher instruction (Kapur, 2014; Stein, Engle, Smith, & Hughes, 2008; Sullivan, Borcek, Walker, & Rennie, 2016). This emphasis on challenging tasks, student-centred pedagogies, and learning through problem solving is analogous to what has been described as reform-oriented mathematics instruction (Sherin, 2002).

Stein et al. (2008) suggest that reform-oriented lessons offer a particular vision of mathematics instruction whereby “students are presented with more realistic and complex mathematical problems, use each other as resources for working through those problems, and then share their strategies and solutions in whole-class discussions that are orchestrated by the teacher” (p. 315). An extensive body of research links teachers’ willingness to adopt reform-oriented practices with their beliefs about teaching and learning mathematics (e.g., Stipek, Givvin, Salmon, & MacGyvers, 2001; Wilkins, 2008). Exploring teacher beliefs that are related to reform-oriented approaches is essential if we are to better understand how to change their classroom practices to ways that might promote students’ learning of mathematics.

Although teacher beliefs about, and attitudes towards, reform-oriented pedagogies have been a focus of previous research (e.g., Anderson, White, & Sullivan, 2005; Leikin, Levav-Waynberg, Gurevich, & Mednikov, 2006), teacher beliefs about the specific role of student struggle has only been considered tangentially. This is despite the fact that allowing students time to struggle with tasks appears to be a central aspect to learning mathematics with understanding (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007), and that teaching mathematics for understanding is fundamental to mathematics reform (Stein et al., 2008). The purpose of the current study, therefore, was to examine teacher beliefs about the role of student struggle in the mathematics classroom.

The full article is available here, but is paywalled (Update: draft here). (If you really want it …)

It is not appropriate this time to suggest readers have fun. We’ll go with “Good luck”.

UPDATE (28/7)

Jerry in the comments has located a draft version of the article, available here. We haven’t compared the draft to the published version.

A Question from a Teacher

A few days ago we received an email from Aaron, a primary school teacher in South Australia. Apparently motivated by some of our posts, and our recent thumping of PISA in particular, Aaron wrote on his confusion on what type of mathematics teaching was valuable and asked for our opinion. Though we are less familiar with primary teaching, of course we intend to respond to Aaron. (As readers of this blog should know by now, we’re happy to give our opinion on any topic, at any time, whether or not there has been a request to do so, and whether or not we have a clue about the topic. We’re generous that way.) It seemed to us, however, that some of the commenters on this blog may be better placed to respond, and also that any resulting discussion may be of general interest.

With Aaron’s permission, we have reprinted his email, below, and readers are invited to comment. Note that Aaron’s query is on primary school teaching, and commenters may wish to keep that in mind, but the issues are clearly broader and all relevant discussion is welcome.

 

Good afternoon, my name is Aaron and I am a primary teacher based in South Australia. I have both suffered at the hands of terrible maths teachers in my life and had to line manage awful maths teachers in the past. I have returned to the classroom and am now responsible for turning students who loathe maths and have big challenges with it, into stimulated, curious and adventure seeking mathematicians.

Upon commencing following your blog some time ago I have become increasingly concerned I may not know what it is students need to do in maths after all!

I am a believer that desperately seeking to make maths “contextual and relevant” is a waste, and that learning maths for the sake of advancing intellectual curiosity and a capacity to analyse and solve problems should be reason enough to do maths. I had not recognised the dumbing-down affect of renaming maths as numeracy, and its attendant repurposing of school as a job-skills training ground (similarly with STEM!) until I started reading your work. Your recent post on PISA crap highlighting how the questions were only testing low level mathematics but disguising that with lots of words was also really important in terms of helping me assess my readiness to teach. I have to admit I thought having students uncover the maths in word problems was important and have done a lot of work around that in the past.

I would like to know what practices you believe constitutes great practice for teaching in the primary classroom. I get the sense it involves not much word-problem work, but rather operating from the gradual release of responsibility (I do – we do – you do) explicit teaching model.

I would really value your thoughts around this.

Warm regards,
Aaron