Towards a more equitable and empowering mathematics curriculum: What if we made progressive pedagogies more visible?
The Covid-19 pandemic has added to growing concerns about how misleading statistics and media reports can influence the beliefs and behaviour of millions of people. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 project (OECD, 2018) called for a review of the school curriculum with a view to cultivating the collective knowledge and critical understanding needed for today’s learners to address the environmental, economic and social challenges facing our society. We believe that mathematics education has a vital role to play in meeting these aims; however, current policy directions in England may prevent it from doing so.
Teacher-centred mathematics pedagogies, such as ‘direct instruction’ and mastery approaches, which involve students being led through a series of carefully structured exercises, have enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity. This is no doubt fuelled by government-funded initiatives such as the Shanghai Teacher Exchange and Ofsted’s recent (and somewhat selective) review of mathematics education research. However, these teaching approaches do little to address increasing levels of student anxiety and alienation caused by traditional mathematics pedagogies, in which teachers typically model how to apply a procedure to solve a closed problem, and then students practise a series of almost identical problems (Hudson, 2018; Williams & Choudry, 2016). The greatest flaw in such pedagogies is their neglect of learner agency (Fisher, 2021), with a misplaced belief that knowledge on its own can be powerful, rather than being dependent on the agency of the individual with that knowledge (Manyukhina & Wyse, 2019).
‘The greatest flaw in traditional mathematics pedagogies is their neglect of learner agency, with a misplaced belief that knowledge on its own can be powerful, rather than being dependent on the agency of the individual with that knowledge.’
In our recent article, ‘Progressive pedagogies made visible: Implications for equitable mathematics teaching’, we explore the potential of adopting progressive pedagogies – characterised by collaborative, discursive and open-ended teaching approaches – for developing an equitable and empowering mathematics curriculum capable of addressing contemporary challenges we face as a society (Wright et al., 2021). We report on the findings of the Visible Maths Pedagogy participatory action research project which was conducted in a non-selective state secondary (age 11–18) school in London. We aimed to address concerns that the relatively unstructured nature of progressive pedagogies may render them ‘invisible’ to learners and hence further disadvantage marginalised students by denying them access to powerful knowledge (Lubienski, 2004).
The project focused on developing, trying out and evaluating teaching strategies, aimed at making the teacher’s pedagogic rationale more explicit to learners through a series of plan-teach-evaluate cycles. An example was the ‘model solution’ strategy, which involved students attempting to solve a mathematical problem on their own before presenting their solutions to others. The teacher then facilitated a whole-class discussion with the aim of arriving at an agreed model solution and identifying characteristics that make this a ‘good’ solution (such as unambiguous use of language and clearly articulated reasoning). A crucial part of the strategy was a follow-up discussion in which the teacher posed questions such as, ‘Why do you think I asked you to agree a model solution rather than showing you?’ This provided opportunities to make the pedagogical rationale more explicit. For some strategies, a discussion was prompted by inviting groups of students to rank a series of cards, containing possible reasons to explain the teacher’s pedagogic decisions, according to which were considered most/least valid.
The findings demonstrated how the strategies enabled students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to develop a greater appreciation of the teacher’s pedagogical rationale for employing progressive teaching approaches. Students became increasingly willing to engage with progressive teaching approaches, attributing their enjoyment of lessons to opportunities to work collaboratively with others in tackling challenging mathematical problems, suggesting a challenge to traditional classroom norms. They began to articulate more clearly how to respond appropriately to progressive pedagogies to achieve mathematical success, demonstrating how making such pedagogies more visible can foster learners’ agency, while providing students with greater access to powerful mathematical knowledge (Muller & Young, 2019).
This article is based on the article ‘Progressive pedagogies made visible: Implications for equitable mathematics teaching’ by Pete Wright, Alba Fejzo and Tiago Carvalho, published in the Curriculum Journal.
Fisher, N. (2021, March 10). The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the classroom. The Psychologist. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/how-and-why-classroom
Hudson, B. (2018). Powerful knowledge and epistemic quality in school mathematics. London Review of Education, 16(3), 384–397.
Lubienski, S. T. (2004). Decoding mathematics instruction: A critical examination of an invisible pedagogy. In J. Muller, B. Davies, & A. Morais (Eds), Reading Bernstein, researching Bernstein (pp. 91–122). Routledge.
Manyukhina, Y., & Wyse, D. (2019). Learner agency and the curriculum: A critical realist perspective. Curriculum Journal, 30(3), 223–243. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2019.1599973
Muller, J., & Young, M. (2019). Knowledge, power and powerful knowledge re-visited. Curriculum Journal, 30(2), 196–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2019.1570292
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2018). The future of education and skills: Education 2030. https://www.oecd.org/education/2030/E2030%20Position%20Paper%20(05.04.2018).pdf
Williams, J., & Choudry, S. (2016). Mathematics capital in the educational field: Beyond Bourdieu. Research in Mathematics Education, 18(1), 3–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/14794802.2016.1141113
Wright, P., Fejzo, A., & Carvalho, T. (2021). Progressive pedagogies made visible: Implications for equitable mathematics teaching. Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.122