Three points that guide my maths lessons

Teachers often tell me that they understand how to incorporate inquiry into literacy or UOI learning engagements, but that they are puzzled and unsure of how to “do inquiry maths”. Here I will outline a few simple points to help underlie my thinking when it comes to planning learning engagements in maths.

1. Maths is inherently an inquiry subject

I suspect that the vast majority of teachers are concerned about sounding out-of-touch with modern practice or sounding archaic and old-fashioned, and as a result of this feel a lot of anxiety about incorporating maths and inquiry, as often the manner in which it was taught to us was poor. Simply put, we fear being labelled as the drill-and-kill teacher in school environments that espouse progressive practice. Yet we forget that maths is inherently an inquiry subject. By its very nature maths is about the relationships and properties of numbers, and when applied to the natural world, one can argue that simply by engaging in practical real-world application, students are engaging in inquiry maths.

A few things can help this along: firstly, teachers should pose problems to the students as a class, and use their existing knowledge base to guide them toward making the connections. Make such problems interesting for students, make use of their naturally inquisitive natures. Secondly, teachers should, as much as possible, have students engage with each other about the possible solutions they have found to problems. Again, this is simple inquiry in action, as the students will discover that they have all attempted to complete the problem in different ways.

2. Inquiry means putting student agency at the heart of the plan

I am a firm believer that if things cannot be explained simply, then it means that the person doing the explaining does not fully understand the topic themselves. In this, Inquiry has been poorly explained by many people, and has been taken to mean many things that it is not. Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle has changed over the years, as it should. No single instructional practice is ever perfect. With all the poor misconception about what inquiry is, I maintain thing: Inquiry means putting student agency at the heart of our planning. Simply put, I mean that we need to design learning engagements that make use of a child’s natural inquisitiveness about the world around them, and seek to help them make connections. In maths, this is easily accomplished by applying learning to real-world situations.

3. Procedural fluency is important

Inquiry is however not the be-all and end-all however, and it is a poor teacher or a poor principal that endorses only one instructional method and the cost of many others. Procedural fluency in maths is important, and it is often this aspect of maths teaching that we think of when we think of the teaching of maths. It does not seem like it is compatible with inquiry, and indeed it largely is not. But, it is still vital, and therefore must be covered. Yet, I maintain that the best manner in which to foster procedural fluency is with maths games, played as a class or played in pairs. Games distract students from their fear of maths and help students be more successful.

Planning and planners

As part of my M. Ed I ran a pilot study that examined the relationship between prescription and teachers feelings. A key finding of my research was that nearly every teacher maintained that they disliked prescriptive lessons, they felt that it made them a much more effective teacher.

As a result of this, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to convey a lot of valuable information to our team, help us meet out maths goals while keeping the information as succinct as possible. A particular experience of mine that I have found immensely useful is to develop team planners, that convey information simply and efficiently.