Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Professional Autonomy in Primary Mathematics: Striking a Balance

Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Professional Autonomy in Primary Mathematics: Striking a Balance

Article excerpt

I recently found myself in school with a group of trainee primary mathematics teachers from Shanghai. As I attempted to provide a whispered commentary at the back of the classroom about what the host teacher was doing, I found myself reflecting on and questioning the justification for practice I was providing, a familiar sensation in situations like this.

Thrown into relief by the relative clarity of purpose of my guests, the bewildering array of guidance and prescription faced by today's primary mathematics teachers in England was especially striking. The very presence of these Chinese teachers in that mathematics lesson hints at one facet of this. As the last school year drew to a close, there was an announcement that additional funding for training in mastery techniques would be released (BBC, 2016). Meanwhile, much attention has been focused on the use of textbooks, heavily promoted by schools' minister Nick Gibb (Gibb, 2015) and a now-postponed times tables text was mooted (DfE, 2016a), all initiatives inspired by education in the Far East. Just as a previous generation of teachers came to terms with the National Numeracy Strategy, newcomers to the profession in 2016 need to make sense of a multitude of influences, now frequently stimulated by international comparisons.

In seeking to rationalise and articulate current primary mathematics practice, my thoughts were drawn back to the Cambridge Primary Review, widely lauded upon publication as a well-informed vision for primary education. At the heart of this review was the idea that the truly professional teacher, like a doctor, would have command of evidence and principles underpinning practice:

The test of this alternative view of professionalism is that teachers should be able to give a coherent justification for their plans and decisions citing (i) evidence, (ii) pedagogical principle, (iii) educational aims, rather than offering the unsafe defence of compliance with what others expect. Anything less is educationally unsound. (Alexander, 2010, p.496)

This idea of a theoretical grounding for practice is a feature of many definitions of professional practice. How, I wondered, are today's non-specialist primary mathematics teachers to retain a sense of autonomy and avoid Alexander's charge of mere compliance?

As a starting point, I would suggest a professional stance, based on a number of inter-connected practices, depicted in Figure 1.

In seeking to explain each of these terms, I will draw on the example of responding to current initiatives concerning pedagogical practices related to mastery and textbooks. This is not because these are inherently problematic but simply because of their current high profile.

Exercising judgement

In MT251, the National Association of Mathematics Advisors (NAMA, 2016) wrote helpfully about the ways in which teachers can take ownership of many aspects of a mastery approach, challenging some beliefs about a need for conformity. Similarly, I recently interviewed a mathematics co-ordinator about her introduction of textbooks into a primary school. She described a collegiate process of trial and discussion through which teachers came to understand how textbooks might work in their school and with particular classes. Far from being a uniform and blunt instrument, textbooks had come to be used with discretion as a useful source of overall structure or conceptual progression.

David Tripp memorably defined teacher expertise as the ability to exercise professional judgement under uncertainty (Tripp, 2011). These teachers, while drawing on established resources and training, had nevertheless begun by asking what these practices could offer to their existing notions of good teaching. How might we develop this further?

Possible actions:

* Lesson study or other peer observation to investigate an aspect of the pupil experience of mastery teaching, such as how pupils with different levels of prior attainment fare with an increased emphasis on whole-class teaching. …

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