From education to employment

Action research points way to improved post-16 maths outcomes

maths symbols

Action research carried out by practitioners as part of the Department for Education (DfE)-funded Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme has shown the potential benefits of action research as a form of continuous professional development and identified a series of adaptations that can lead to improved post-16 maths resit outcomes.

The action research was led by the 21 designated Centres for Excellence, who recruited and collaborated with other local post-16 providers. The forty projects were founded on the definition of action research articulated by McNiff and Whitehead in 2007, which was based on the “power of sharing ideas to generate new ones” and saw action research as collaborative, empowering and iterative. For these projects, researchers were encouraged to base their research on three overarching questions related to teaching for mastery in FE maths:

  1. Teaching for understanding: how can we develop learners’ conceptual understanding, and support their reasoning and problem-solving skills?
  2. Responsive teaching: how can we deliver a maths curriculum that is responsive to the gaps in learners’ skills and understanding?
  3. Engagement and resilience: how can we engage learners and overcome negative attitudes, anxiety and mindsets?

The recommendations for adaptations that teachers, managers and the wider sector should consider feature in a synthesis report – ‘Changing the experience of FE Maths’ – published by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), which oversaw the CfEM programme. Recommendations for teaching practice include:

  • Developing learners’ engagement and resilience by creating safe learning environments where learners feel valued and listened to and mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning, and by promoting an understanding of the importance of effort over innate ability.
  • Introducing visual representations – such as double number lines, ratio tables and bar models – early in the year, and adopting them across a range of topics, to support learners who do not already have a secure method for understanding maths, as well as those taking on more challenging or varied questions.
  • Introducing physical manipulatives appropriately. In these research projects manipulatives – such as algebra tiles – were successfully introduced to small groups of learners with misconceptions or without secure understanding of maths concepts.
  • Teaching mathematical vocabulary at the beginning of the year, and then drawing attention to it regularly, and allowing learners opportunities to practice this knowledge by answering exam-type questions.
  • Drawing on the ideas of Real Mathematics Education (RME) around the contextualisation of maths topics to make tangible and relatable what can otherwise be an abstract curriculum. Context can reveal mathematical structure and make mathematical concepts more accessible.
  • Teaching responsively by identifying learners’ skills gaps and misconceptions and addressing them, rather than re-teaching what learners already know. In these projects, approaches involved steps that evolved into significant changes in practice away from teacher as instructor towards teacher as learning facilitator.
  • Using coaching and mentoring approaches to improve engagement and resilience. This research demonstrated that teachers and some learning support assistants can develop coaching and mentoring techniques that can be used inside and outside class; one Centre found that they led to improvement in learners’ grades.

The research also highlighted the importance of maths managers and senior leaders supporting improvement through action research by promoting an understanding of its value and creating a supportive culture that gives teachers permission to innovate and undertake regular CPD.

Wider observations arising from the research included the effectiveness of employing a balance of learning from established expertise and evidence and allowing teachers to co-create solutions to issues in their own contexts by working collaboratively over time to improve outcomes; and the effectiveness of applying core elements of teaching for mastery in an FE context.

Lorna McMahon, Maths Lecturer and GCSE Maths Course Leader at Tameside College, said:

“Action research was new to me at the start of the CfEM project and, at first I was sceptical. However, once I understood more about the concept and learned to trust the process, the benefits became clear. Action research has re-energised my teaching, encouraging me to try different approaches. Through it, I have learned so much about the way that students and colleagues think, and that has encouraged me to try even more new things.”

Steve Pardoe, Head of the Centres for Excellence in Maths programme at the ETF, said:

“These projects have demonstrated that action research is beneficial to maths practitioners in the FE and Training sector as a form of professional development, and to learners, who benefit from the innovations the research leads to. On behalf of the ETF, I’d like to thank all those teachers in the CfEM centres and their local networks who took part in and helped to facilitate this valuable work.”

The synthesis report, which includes details of the individual action research projects, is available on the CfEM action research resources page of the ETF website, along with ‘Action Research for Professional Development: A Practical Guide for FE Maths Teachers’.

The research projects took place as part of the wider ETF-led, DfE-funded CfEM programme. Visit the ETF CfEM resources and evidence hub for further details.

Related Articles