Exemplar Review - Marist School - June 2018

Background

Introduction

Under Part 28 of the Education Act 1989 the Chief Review Officer has the power to administer reviews either general or relating to particular matters, of the performance of applicable (pre-tertiary) organisations in relation to the applicable services they provide, and prepare reports on the undertaking and results of such reviews.

An exemplar report may be produced when ERO finds an organisation demonstrates effective practice in relation to specific aspects of performance.

Effective Practice: Teaching Strategies

ERO reviewedMarist School (Mount Albert)to investigate its mathematicsteaching approaches and strategies that have led to a significant increase in the number of students at or above standards in the upper primary school years (Years 5 to 8). We wanted to learn more about any short-term interventions or long-term strategies that may have been influential in bringing about these positive achievement trajectories.

Marist School was selected from a database of 129 schools, with rolls over 200. The school was chosen because increased numbers of students were achieving at or above as they moved through Year 4 to Year 5. The school’s achievement levels were also higher than the average for their decile.

Before the review , we sent the school a set of discussion points and questions for leaders to consider. We asked leaders what they saw as the reasons for their positive achievement trajectory. We then looked for evidence of the approaches and strategies used, and the outcomes, by:

  • talking with children, parents, teachers, leaders and, where possible, trustees
  • observing in classrooms
  • looking at documentation, student work, class displays and the school environment.

Context:

National data shows that while many New Zealand children make good progress during their first three to four years at primary school the rate of progress slows during Years 5 to 8.

Recent National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) reports have found that many more Year 4 than Year 8 students are achieving at the expected curriculum level. The most recent report, NMSSA mathematics and statistics report, 2013, found that while 81 percent of Year 4 students were performing at Level 2 as expected, only 41 percent of Year 8 students were performing at the expected Level 4. The report also found that Year 8 students were less positive about mathematics than Year 4 students.

These concerns, based on primary school data, are reinforced by Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing of high school students. PISA reports that New Zealand is one of very few countries in which the mathematics and science achievement of 15-year-olds is on a trajectory of accelerated decline.

Further, PISA data show that within the same school young people can experience widely divergent opportunities to learn. This within-school disparity, one of the highest in the participating countries, means that within-school variation in student achievement is very large compared with that of countries in a similar position on the table.

PISA data also show that New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of students attending schools where they are grouped by ability across and within mathematics classes. And, in New Zealand, the impact of these four factors on mathematics achievement is particularly significant:

  • exposure to formal mathematics
  • teacher–student relations
  • disciplinary climate
  • truancy.

The 2014/15 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) found that “although New Zealand’s mean achievement in mathematics has increased since 1994/95, many other countries have increased by more. New Zealand Year 5 students’ mean mathematics achievement was significantly higher than 13 countries, but lower than the mean score of 33 countries, including all the other predominantly English-speaking countries who participated.”

Although New Zealand teachers reported that at least eight in every 10 students had been taught all the topics tested, some specific strengths and weaknesses were revealed in the results. Students did significantly better at applying their knowledge and reasoning, compared with the cognitive behaviour of knowing (a consistent pattern since 2006/07). They did best on data display questions, which was the curriculum area most likely to be covered by their teachers. The topics least likely to be covered in class were comparing and drawing angles (40 percent); concepts of decimals, including place value and ordering, and adding and subtracting with decimals (62 percent); and using informal coordinate systems to locate points in a plane (67 percent).

Just over three-quarters of New Zealand Year 5 students said they ‘liked’ learning mathematics. However, the score on this indicator was less positive than the mean for all participating countries. More students described themselves as ‘not confident’ and fewer as ‘very confident’ in mathematics. They were positive about how their teacher engaged with them in the mathematics classroom, but fewer found their mathematics lessons ‘very engaging’ compared with the international average.

Exemplar: Giving students explicit instruction about learning strategies helped them take control of their learning and developed their self-efficacy

Over the past few years the teachers at Marist School significantly changed how they teach mathematics. Most importantly, they moved away from cross-syndicate streaming and have focused instead on increasing understanding through greater engagement and by teaching children to share their mathematical thinking. As a result, many children now went on to achieve well in mathematics, particularly by the time they reach the end of Year 6.

This report highlights reasons for the changes and key actions taken by leaders and teachers. It also describes the use of digital apps to reinforce the children’s mathematical learning and build their confidence to solve problems.

Key changes were introduced following the arrival of the current principal. Teachers of Years 4 to 6 children reviewed their mathematics programme and decided to drop the practice of crossgrouping. A significant percentage of Year 6 children were working below the expected level for mathematics, and nothing was happening to change this. Concerned, one teacher asked her students to complete a survey. The responses clearly showed the negative impacts of ability grouping. Many of the students had been in the lowest class or group for a long time and had acquired very negative attitudes towards mathematics. They admitted that they avoided doing anything that looked difficult.

Our principal had the bigger picture about maths grouping and what our grouping was doing for our children and wanted us to have more flexible grouping, where children could learn from each other or could participate in a teaching session targeted at what they needed to learn. We tried it and the sun continued to rise and the sky did not fall. The lowest kids made the most progress as they now had a more positive attitude to maths." - Teacher

Initially each teacher then taught mathematics to their own students, organised into in-class ability groups. However, it became clear to the teachers that no matter how the bottom group was labelled, the children always knew it was the bottom group.

Abandoning ability grouping was challenging for some teachers who needed extra encouragement and support to change. However, despite their misgivings, as children began to work in mixed-ability pairs or groups teacher saw astonishing progress. At first teachers only saw the benefits for children in the lower groups. However, later in became clear that even the most able mathematicians progressed because they thought more deeply about their strategies and searched for alternative ways to help their peers. The children understood that, to be successful, each partner in their groups had to be able to explain their solution and justify their reasoning.

Students working together using the reference chart

Students citing the reference chart

Teachers also effectively helped children to understand what they were learning and how they could apply new strategies to solve mathematics problems. Teachers introduced modelling books and reference charts that they developed collaboratively with the children. Children negotiated success criteria for each lesson with their teacher, who recorded them on a chart. They then worked in mixed-ability pairs to solve a set of problems before coming back together to share their strategies and solutions. Children were able to refer back to the chart to see if they had met all the requirements when completing a set task.

Students working together using the reference chart

Students referring to the chart

Children were well supported to successfully use the new approaches. Teachers developed the children’s confidence with new strategies by having them teach their peers. In one classroom, the teacher asked six children who had completed problems without checking to teach some of the other children. Children finishing tasks quickly then helped others to think more deeply about what they were doing. Listening to other children and prompting them to try different strategies their peers. Children used their errors to improve their learning when working in pairs or small groups.

Children made good use of digital devices, apps and voice-recording facilities, to demonstrate their mathematical thinking. They sometimes used a YouTube clip of another class using the app. Children’s ability to critic and improve other students problem solving strategies reinforced their self-confidence as explorers and discoverers. The move away from ability-grouping, along with deliberate teaching about applying strategies, considerably improved the children’s attitudes towards and success with mathematics.

Students working together using digital technology for math strategies

Children use digital technologies to explain their mathematics strategies to peers

Why is this exemplar important?

It is vital all schools have organisational structures, processes and practices that enable and sustain collaborative learning and decision making designed to continuously improve student achievement.

Many schools are able to describe a wide variety of things they were doing, yet often with little knowledge about which of these are contributing to improved achievement. It is just as important to know what is working as it is to know what the achievement issues are. Leaders at this school confidently shared what had worked to accelerate children’s progress.

Leaders had focused on inequity in student achievement. These schools had recognised the need to do something differently to improve outcomes for those who were not achieving well. The leaders and teachers had focused on reducing inequity by abandoning the practice of streaming Year 4 to 6 children based on their perceived mathematics ability and by supporting them to understand the strategies they needed to take greater control of their own learning.

Teachers realised that their previous practice of grouping by ability within or across classes seriously disadvantaged children in the lowergroups, who were denied access to the whole curriculum and had negative perceptions about their mathematical ability reinforced. Themixed-ability grouping practices also had benefits for more able mathematicians, who, when working with peers, had to think deeply about alternative solutions. Teachers found that children in mixed-ability groups had greater understanding of their learning, were better able to recognise achievement and progress, and knew what they had to do to improve. Many of those who had previously been in ‘bottom’ groups talked to us about how their confidence in and enjoyment of mathematics had increased since working in flexible, mixed-ability groups.

Recommendations for system improvement

ERO recommends that school leaders continue their improvements and share with other schools their approaches related to:

  • responsive curriculum, effective teaching and opportunities to learn.

Diana Anderson

Deputy Chief Executive Evaluation and Policy

On behalf of the Chief Executive/ Chief Review Officer

7 June 2018