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Thinking outside the classroom

Transcript of interview with Madonna King and Dr Bronwyn Ewing.

Introduction: At QUT we believe that teachers do more than build understanding. They build confidence, resilience, they help students to make sense of the real world and the faster technology changes, the more important teachers become. If you feel the same way, this podcast is for you. Welcome to PodClass.

[Children laughing and a school bell rings]

Every step that you take forward you’re actually changing a child’s life, you are taking people with you.

This idea of the silent classroom is also a little bit of a myth and could be getting in the way.

They have very little time to just take a breath, sit down and think. Where do I want to go, what do I want to do with my career?

It's amazing how many fresh ideas you can have when you can ask your question of the entire world.

I have given it all I have got, I am exhausted and I need a break. I think that is part of it.

Sometimes when first year, we think goodness how are we going to make a teacher out of you? But then you see them in fourth year and you think gosh they are better than I am. [Multiple voices laugh]


Madonna: Hello and welcome, I’m Madonna King and this is QUT’s Podclass. Explaining place values with turtle eggs, teaching area by catching prawns and adults learning maths at a cemetery. Context, we know it’s important in our everyday living, but how important is contextualised teaching and learning and how might it come alive in today’s curriculum? My guest is Dr. Bronwyn Ewing, Senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, in a School of Teacher Education and Leadership at QUT. Hello Bronwyn.

Bronwyn: Good morning Madonna.

Madonna: Do you go to a party and someone asks you what you do, how do you answer that?

Bronwyn: First and foremost I actually say that I’m a teacher of mathematics.

Madonna: You also work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and schools?

Bronwyn: I do, yes and also within TAFE institutes and out in communities, yes.

Madonna: So were you ever a classroom teacher?

Bronwyn: Yes I was and enjoyed every moment of it and worked with the primary schooling sector.

Madonna: Today we are talking to teachers everywhere about teaching and diverse, in perhaps alternative settings, principles using maths. How much does context matter in teaching?

Bronwyn: It matters a lot Madonna because for so long, we've actually had children, including ourselves more than likely go through schooling where we are told to turn to page 16 and do exercises 1 to 10 and those who are really fast at doing it, they might get exercises 1 to 20 and then of course an hour later where it has been a code of silence, it's right who's ready to mark and then we all mark it and then hands go up, who got 80%? Who got 50%? But little did teachers realise that in the back of the textbook are the answers. So what did students do? Work backwards and of course that’s been a pattern for well over a hundred years. From my Ph.D. I identified that and of course that’s where those questions around relevance come. Where does this connect with my everyday life? So the students have been asking the question for a long time, but we haven’t quite been able to make those connections to everyday life.

Madonna: So what we are talking about is how what we learn fits in with us and our community, our family, our environment. It’s a huge area, can we look at how our have taught in some really different classrooms or environments and lets start at the Torres Strait.

Bronwyn: Alright, so I worked across the 15 schools, sorry 17 schools on 16 Islands. And the purpose of that particular project was the communities were wanting for mathematics to be connected to their context, to the employment that might be available on the island. Rather than it coming out of a text book that might be written in another country, but it’s used within classrooms here. And so, with that particular project was we worked with the elders in the community. So for example, we had an elder come in and he was teaching the students how to make a canoe, a traditional canoe and of course the big question was, how do you know your canoe when your paddle is going to go in a straight line? And it of course it was there that we had to start exploring the mathematics that’s tied in.

Madonna: Circumference, radius, speed, direction. Well my example of teaching maths by catching prawns and fish, come from the Torres Strait Island and I think that as teaching area.

Bronwyn: Of course, yes. So the Torres Strait Islanders are brilliant navigators and brilliant sea ferrying people and of course they used the nets in the Torres Straits whether its their traditional fish taps your indeed out into the oceans. So if you have got a fishnet, that’s got a large pole, you’re going to have a lot of fish swimming through the net.

Madonna: It’s going to be the one that got away.

Bronwyn: Yeah exactly, so the idea is what we did is we looked at nets for catching different sea creatures and of course, when you think about prawns. Obviously you don't want a great big area in terms of the internal space of the hole in the net. So we explored, so what size net would we actually need for the prawns?

Madonna: What would be the area of the hole? Could you see the instant in engagement in doing it this way?

Bronwyn: Absolutely, yep. Because there is a far richer story that comes with the nets, than what there is with a worksheet that’s printed on black and white.

Madonna: And indeed teaching this was this part of a much bigger project that really embedded Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum.

Bronwyn: Yes it did.

Madonna: So did you translate the maths curriculum into the local language?

Bronwyn: We did actually, I had the opportunity to work with [unclear 0:06:14] and he at the time heading up the cultural and linguistic teams throughout the island schools and communities. Because they could see that the four languages of the Torres Straits the traditional languages as well as the more modern language, Yumplatok was slowly diminishing obviously as elders pass on. And so I had the opportunity to would with [unclear 0:06:39] and his team and what we did do was looked at the translations and it was the first time that’s ever been done.

Madonna: Create a broader community engagement with the students and the school?

Bronwyn: I think it did, because one of the things that we come to learn was that when students were assessed in their mathematics using the diagnostic interview, it gave the students the opportunity to be assessed and they could use their home language.

Madonna: What you are talking about is providing relevant context in the class, isn’t it?

Bronwyn: Yeah.

Madonna: Wherever you are.

Bronwyn: Well what’s interesting here is it's not just in the classroom, the curriculum can be anywhere. The curriculum is in the community, not on a shelf.

Madonna: What do you think the difference in learning was between a child who was being taught mathematics without that count and a child who was learning from a curriculum in their own language and with nets or whatever else that made it real?

Bronwyn: I think students do is when it’s made very real and very relevant here is the rich, elegant story that comes with mathematics. Mathematics is not a sterile, bland subject, I mean it’s everywhere around us we just don’t; see it. But when we bring it out, that’s when the students go I know about that.

Madonna: You wrote a diagnostic assessment for this, what does that mean and is it available if teachers wanted to have a look at it?

Bronwyn: Yes, I wrote the diagnostic and it was in particular it was focusing on measurement and the topics within the measurement strand in there Australian curriculum and what I did do was link the question in the diagnostics. So it was an interview based diagnostic, wasn’t one where we sit down and we give a pen and paper test, quite different and of course then the students had the opportunity to either respond in home language or in English. Now the purpose of the diagnostic itself though was to, it was actually two fold to identify the gaps in the students’ understanding and then for the teacher to consider where to take them to next. But the second part was that the community and teachers were telling me, they think that these children actually know the mathematics, but find it very difficult to express or written in English. Hence why they had the opportunity to express in it home language.

Madonna: And where would teachers find that diagnostic?

Bronwyn: Sure, that’s actually available online and it comes in under my name Bronwyn Ewing or Ewing, B. and it’s actually called the tagline maths for employment project, interview diagnostics assessment.

Madonna: Some of the lessons in it involve using a lunchbox to explore centre cubes, dugongs are at the centre of the life cycle teaching. But many of these ideas could be transferred to a totally different environment very easily, couldn’t they?

Bronwyn: Yes, yes.

Madonna: How would you describe the impact of the research project there?

Bronwyn: So I think the biggest impact was the shift in teachers’ pedagogy, first and foremost.

Madonna: Do you think across the board we need to do more work to embed Indigenous perspectives into our learning?

Bronwyn: I think we do and I think not just in mathematics, but I think right across.

Madonna: So let's leave the Torres Strait now and go to completely different classroms or settings anywhere. How important is it to understand the lives and the families and even the challenges of the students who sit in front of you?

Bronwyn: I think it's very important, I think as classroom teachers, where once upon a time, we were just designated classroom teachers. Our roles have become quite diverse and indeed teachers are coming from diverse backgrounds and families and communities as well. I think for teachers what’s critical here getting to know your students.

Madonna: But a teacher has 25 - 30 students in a class, they might have several classes over the day, how do they even start to do that?

Bronwyn: I think it can occur, but obviously not over a day. But over time, I think that when we come into school at the beginning of the year, there’s nothing worse than being a classroom teacher and getting to Friday and saying "Do you know what? I don’t actually think that I spoke to Madonna this week" Okay and I think it’s about focusing. So each day, focus on other small groups of students, so of course you have got the responsibility and a duty of care to all the students. However, each day plan okay for this day, I’m going to focus on these four students and then the next day another four and another four.

Madonna: Because background is so relevant. Someone told me the story about a research paper in rural Victoria where kids were coming to school and not taking in any maths or literacy until the teachers visited their homes and realised they were getting up before dawn, they were milking cows. By the time they got to school they were so tired, they actually needed time out from the first hour and then they were awake. You are nodding as though everyone knows that?

Bronwyn: Well I don’t think that everyone does. I’m always mindful of when mathematics gets programed into school programs. Particularly with the schools that I work in and of course, one thing I would never do or very rare would I launch into maths lessons in the afternoon. Even when I was teaching and it's not something that I recommend.

Madonna: Because our children are tired?

Bronwyn: Well our children are tired, there are a number of things. We do have children in regional and remote who may well work on properties prior to coming to school, we also know that children can have potentially up to two to the three hours emersion in TV an IPad before they come to school. So there is a lot of competition going on, in terms of how to really capture the students. So we have to work really hard as classroom teachers to make sure that when we are teaching mathematics or indeed any other subject area, that it is rich, that is informative and it captures the students.

Madonna: It was in a jail that you use turtle gags in a maths class.

Bronwyn: I did, I did. Well there are parts of mathemetics that you have to get to be very deliberate in teaching. Now I know that that children in the detention centre are quite diverse and the students were not robust in or not strong place value and understanding groupings in ones, tens and hundreds. So what we decided to do was again, look at a context. Well we know that turtles lay around about up to two hundred eggs and of course we also know that what’s really important here is that the eggs are a food supply. And we actually had a lovely YouTube clip and we showed the elders actually tracking the turtles, but also some of the mothers were actually digging out the turtle eggs and showing the children how this is done. So here’s where a significant practice is transgenerational, but what’s also important here is that the children, they had to count how many eggs that had actually got. So they had to keep track. Now when you have your pile of 30 something eggs there, its hard to count. So here’s where the place value comes in. If I put those eggs into groups of let's say, we know the 10 ones make 10, well I can put them into groups of 10. So that means that I have got three groups of 1. So what did I used in the youth detention centre with the students? What I could do was obviously bring in the turtle eggs, but what we did do was we used ping pong balls. And that was the next best thing, but we had the context.

Madonna: Had the context, did it then provide the engagement?

Bronwyn: Yes it did, Yes it did and it was really quite interesting to watch the students to because they actually expressed a lot of interest, the fact that they were learning something about turtles and caring for culture okay. But also as a food source, so not all the students had experienced eating turtle eggs, they learned that this is how you actually dig for the turtle eggs, but you don’t take it all. So it’s sustaining the turtle population, as well as the food source.

Madonna: Does good contextualised teaching come automatically with experience or is it something that teachers have to work deliberately on?

Bronwyn: I think and from my research, it is something that teachers have to work at. I think that it’s easy to drop back to a work sheet or a textbook, keeping in mind though that there are schools who prescribe a textbook. The other issue is too that teachers are not robust in their context knowledge and their pedagogical content knowledge that could be one of the reasons why they drop back to worksheets and textbooks. I think with self-awareness with understanding the world around us and then seeing how mathematics are used the example early about the child, who comes to school, but they have milked the cows, they have done this, they have done that. Look at the mathematics they have actually used before coming school.

Madonna: Yes before even sitting down in a classroom. So are there professional development opportunities specifically in this area?

Bronwyn: There are and I do know that Professor Simone White, at QUT is in the process of looking at ways that we can actually set up a professional development program. But you know what I think, not just for teachers; I think that there should also be one for parents.

Madonna: Yeah, tell me about the horticultural patch?

Bronwyn: Alright, so the horticultural patch is an interesting one because I had the students come in at the beginning of the year fairly negative about their mathematics and so we talked about it and I also talked to their previous teachers and I decided that the curriculum is outside the classroom and of course what I did do was that I went to the principal and said "Right, I need to get these students involved in understanding mathematics, volume, area, parameter, multiplications, grouping, renaming, all of those things, but think I can do it through developing a horticulture patch".

Madonna: Their reaction?

Bronwyn: Oh my goodness me the students were delighted. The principal said "We will do it Bron, you show us how it works and we'll do it".

Madonna: So what did you did?

Bronwyn: So what we did do was I actually managed to recruit some parents and really good strategy is as teacher, get your parent so board. Because they can actually assist you if they know that it's going to be benefiting their children's learning, they will come in and assist you. So what we managed to do was chip out a patch, we actually had the children mark out the parameter first and they measured it out and it was I think four metres by five metres, which is a decent patch and then of course we had to calculate well we need to put a boundary around it so we had some old pavers at school and of course what we did was we had three rows of corn and we planted five plants in each row. Well straight away you have got multiplication array and you can look at it and go, oh three rows of five or five rows of three?

Madonna: Is it that simple for children them to see it, rather than hear it and understand it?

Bronwyn: Yes, what it means is you bring in the context, so the students have got the imagery, they have got the experience. Now with Ipads in classrooms now, you take a photo of that experience and then you bring it back into the classroom because you can’t be rushing out to the horticulture patch for every lesson; you have got the image, put it up on the interactive whiteboard and talk to that.

Madonna: So you have taught area by using fishnets, place value by using turtle eggs. Tell me about Pythagoras Theorem in a cemetery?

Bronwyn: It's a bit weird, isn’t it?

Madonna: It sounds a bit weird. These were adult learners?

Bronwyn: Yeah they were adult learners.

Madonna: Why were they in a cemetery, what were they working on?

Bronwyn: So they were doing a civil construction course through the TAFE institute and one of the projects that they had to work on that was assigned to them by the council in conjunction with the TAFE and the instructor was to build a path through the cemetery.

Madonna: So why did they need Pythagoras Theorem to do that?

Bronwyn: Okay, so they had to make sure that they got that path straight. Now if you go into a cemetery, you generally find that there are pathways and there wasn’t actually a pathway. Although there was a clearing that you could make a pathway, so what they had to do because they found that when people came to the cemetery, they just walk all over the place. So they had to make sure that they had set the square properly and that took a number of goes. So we had lots of spray can crosses everywhere and swinging ropes around to make sure that we got the right angle and what have you, but eventually we got there.

Madonna: And one particular student left a lasting impression on you.

Bronwyn: He did. So he really cottoned onto this idea of algebra and by the time had actually got these paths formed up, they realised this was such a good activity. Because they could see that they didn’t really learn a lot about in the classroom, it was where they implemented they learned the most. Anyway, he left that afternoon and of course this student came back booming in to the classroom with a great big smile and said "Guess what I did? I went to the library after work yesterday afternoon and I asked the library person for a book on algebra" and he said "And I got it and I am going to learn all there is about algebra".

Madonna: What did that make you feel like?

Bronwyn: I actually felt really excited for him. I felt as a teacher, I have hit the jackpot, so to speak.

Madonna: And it shows the value of making lessons relevant, doesn’t it?

Bronwyn: I think so. But you know, I think there is something else in this too and that is connecting and just yarning with these people during the learning.

Madonna: Yeah whether they are adults, whether they are kids. In fact I wonder if sometimes we focus on our students’ struggles not always their strengths and you tell me wonderful story involving a little six year old.

Bronwyn: Look I have had a number of wonderful projects in the special schools, but this particular child on this day, well actually my task was to model to the teachers who were observing in the classroom, there were 15 of the. Model geometry lesson using the students. Now these students had never met me before and so this was interesting territory for everybody just to see what would happen. But in took some lovely geometric shapes in, magnetic shapes and their skeletal, so the children could put their fingers through and this particular child over a short period of time proceeded to construct a dodecahedron. And as part of that, he constructed a cube on the inside of it. This was I mean the first shape was extraordinary, but it became magnificent, talking about growth mindset here. Anyway, so everyone was just mouths open, this was just amazing. We had known idea this child could do this and then in the next breath it went whoosh off the table and onto the floor.

Madonna: Another child had knocked it over?

Bronwyn: Yes and it just completely went to bits.

Madonna: What was the reaction of the little boy who built it?

Bronwyn: Well that was what we were all waiting for and he proceeded to walk over and pick up all the pieces, come back and reconstruct it. This was just one of the most extraordinary moments in my teaching, to see a child not construct it once, but to do it twice. And you have got to understand classrooms, when a child kind of whooshes it, I mean you could have a breakout of all sorts of things there. But no, very calmly got it and could reconstruct it, but what was more important that was the shapes were hexagonal shapes and the question was asked by his teacher “Where have you come to learn about these shapes?” And he was not an overtly verbal child and his word was beehives and of course [cross-talk] somewhere in his young life, he has experienced a beehive and he has made the connection between the shape of a beehive and a hexagonal shape.

Madonna: And that request to build something just tapped into that potential? Do we too often under estimate the potential of the students in front of us?

Bronwyn: I think that could be the case, but I think also that when we start to look at the day-to-day running of a classroom and in the special schools the social classroom  and student numbers are a lot smaller. But even within that environment, I really think that the teachers need a major award for the work that they do in the special schools. Because it is such a complex environment when you look at the disabilities that the children come into school with. But it could be an under estimation, yeah but I think that there is number of reasons for why we don’t always see those opportunities coming.

Madonna: So you have told us some wonderful stories, but the key to this must be the how. How teachers provide the instructions behind this.

Bronwyn: Of course and of course we all know that we want be taking children out the horticulture patch day in and day out. So that how, there is a going to be a number of practices that are tied to that. So it could be around the kinds of questions that teachers ask of children. It could around the interaction between students, but also teacher to student, student to teacher. So it’s opening up so students have that opportunity to enquire, to investigate and explore.

Madonna: Are you recommending that in addition to what we teach, we put a particular emphasis then on how we teach it?

Bronwyn: Absolutely, yeah so we can’t just have the content knowledge and we are just going to pour it. The children come in empty, we are just going to fill them up. Yes we have got to have that content, but we have also got to be mindful of how we are actually going to be teaching that content. So what’s critical is that we have got the context, we have got numerous contexts, we have got the contexts outside of the classroom. We have got the context of the children’s stories or indeed your own story. But then consider what mathematics is going to fit with that context and then how are you going to actually go about it.

Madonna: We have talked about alternative very different settings, we have talked about embedding Indigenous perspectives in context of lessons. What’s the message you would like to leave us all with, irrespectful of the makeup of our classes or where we might teach?

Bronwyn: I think for me the curriculum doesn’t exist just in the classroom. The curriculum is all around us, so think about what’s around us, that we can actually draw in to teach children.

Madonna: And it’s implicate in that that we need to know our students well.

Bronwyn: Of course, yeah and I think this is where we need to have those yarns or those conversations and you know, many a time I actually sit on the floor with children and just talk to them and it’s surprising what we can find out.

Madonna: Dr. Bronwyn Ewing, thank you.

Bronwyn: Thank you Madonna.


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