Case Study 3 - Developing a vision for mathematics
I work in a school for about 450 children aged 3 to 11 years. I took over the role as subject leader for mathematics last September. The school is part of a Foundation of three schools which between them cover education for children aged from 3 to 18 of both sexes (with education above the age of 7 years being single sex). The part of the EiML microsite that I decided to use was the “Core Responsibilities” section and then to look at the “Developing a common purpose and shared culture” element of this.
I transcribed the descriptions of the four levels as produced on the EiML microsite and then held meetings with the teachers who teach mathematics to see where they thought our school fitted into these levels. Ideally I would have had a meeting with all of the teachers who teach mathematics together at the same time but due to slightly different timetables this was not possible and in the end organised two lunchtime meetings. Since starting the trial it is noted that these level descriptions are now available to download as a PDF file which is a good idea as it then makes these easily available to give to teachers to during meetings.
The level descriptions promoted quite a lot of discussion and also resulted in some members of staff giving comments that were not directly related to the level descriptions. I found that having the descriptions from the EiML served as a catalyst for the discussion and that people were keen to contribute. Not unexpectedly it was not possible to place our department solely within one level as there are several components and each one could be operating at a different level within a particular school. This suggests that perhaps on the microsite that each component could be described in turn with an explanation of what these levels might look like in a school rather than comparing all of the aspects of a shared vision at the same time. This could help focus on each particular aspect of the shared culture of mathematics in a school.
At the moment in my school I do not believe there is a vision statement for the teaching of mathematics (there is a policy document and a statement of aims) and this first aspect within the level descriptions caused the greatest variance in answers. Some members of staff thought that as they had discussed the implementation of some new apparatus that this constituted a shared vision and whilst these discussions certainly have resulted in practice being shared across classrooms the fact that there is no vision statement led to other staff giving this aspect a level 4. I had to conclude that we were level 4 based on the absence of a vision statement, however to say ‘observations demonstrate conflicting approaches, messages and classroom climates that hinder learning’ would be misleading and incorrect. This shows that applying a particular level descriptor can misinform. Teachers do refer to the policy document and this defines how certain aspects of the subject should be taught, therefore whilst it is obviously a good idea to have a vision statement for the department, the absence of one does not automatically mean that the teaching is taking place in an incoherent manner. At the moment a lot of discussion takes place within year groups to discuss the planning of teaching and this was evident when comments were made that teaching was consistent across a particular year group but it was felt that there was not as much consistency between different year groups. This discussion highlights the need (and wish) for teachers to discuss their teaching with colleagues from different year groups.
When considering the influence of stakeholders and the contributions that they make, teachers seemed uncertain what was intended by using the word ‘stakeholders’. This was explained as governors and parents and any other people with an interest in what happens within the department. As an independent school we have to be very aware of parental expectations and keep them informed about what we are doing but also have to be careful that they do not have to become too involved! The governors of the school support the teaching by ensuring the maintenance of building, facilities and the provision of budgets so that individual departments have the resources they need. The governors do not directly influence the direction of teaching within any departments, although they do monitor results particularly those provided by the mathematics and English departments. This is perhaps symptomatic of the way that the governors have operated although the new Head teacher is keen to involve governors more in the day-to-day life of the school.
When considering teachers' attitudes to the teaching of mathematics the limitations of four levels become obvious as one of the differences between level 3 and level 2 is that teacher’s attitudes shift from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’, whilst in the same description there is how much talk takes places about the teaching of mathematics, which is largely informal rather than there being regular time to discuss it. This highlights the difficulty with assigning a particular level to aspects of the work as our department fits between the level 2 and level 3 descriptions.
When looking at the ‘learning environment’ it was assumed that this was referring to the displays set up in each teaching room, as it was not explicitly defined in the descriptions. Whilst discussing the learning environment it was noted that some aspects of the environment would be beyond the control of a department (for example, the location of the school, the state of the buildings and décor etc). It was also noted that some rooms in a particular school may have a ‘better’ environments due to their aspect, temperature and amount of sun they receive.
During the meetings it was noticeable that teachers approached the discussion in a positive way but also that they were modest about their assessments of areas directly influenced by them (despite a fairly recent inspection report which was extremely positive). This resulted in very few suggestions that any aspect of the shared culture of mathematics was level 1. In many respects this was encouraging as it shows that teachers are willing to think about improving their practice.
I found the experience of using the materials provided by the EiML microsite to be positive and it certainly generated a lot of direct discussion (and also, a couple of days later in the staff room, teachers were joking amongst themselves about being a level 1, therefore the attributing of levels caused them to think more deeply about the process). The level descriptions have helped me as a new subject leader to assess the thinking of the members of the department. The next stage is to discuss with all staff a shared vision for the mathematics department
The questions provided underneath each description and associated ‘Stories for change’ were useful and informative. They provide concrete suggestions about how practice can be improved.
Steve Emmersen, Warwickshire