Australian teachers embrace student struggle in maths: study

Nearly three-quarters of Australian teachers believe students struggling in mathematics is a good thing, Monash University research shows.

  • Three-quarters of Australian mathematics teachers are positive about the role of struggle in the classroom.
  • Teachers view struggle as important for building resilience, developing problem-solving skills and building a community of learners.
  • Prior exposure to professional learning about how to teach mathematics through challenging, problem-solving tasks led to teachers embracing struggle in the classroom.

Nearly three-quarters of Australian elementary teachers believe students struggling in mathematics is a good thing, saying it builds resilience, develops problem-solving skills and facilitates collaborative learning.

New research by Dr James Russo from Monash University’s Faculty of Education shows a shift in teachers’ willingness to embrace struggle in mathematics, believing this sense of challenge is critical to learning.

Published in the Journal of Mathematical Behaviour, researchers interviewed 93 early-years Australian teachers about the role of struggle in the mathematics classroom and how this corresponds with student learning capacity.

More than 90 per cent of teachers interviewed held either positive or conditionally positive beliefs about struggle in the mathematics classroom. Just five of the teachers interviewed held negative views.

The most frequently cited benefits of struggle were the opportunities it provided students to persist through challenge, take risks, build autonomy, develop confidence, foster self-efficacy, learn through mistakes, and acquire a growth mindset.

Dr Russo said close to half of the teachers surveyed believed providing students with opportunities to struggle was effective in building their resilience. In addition, almost one-third of teachers (30 per cent) indicated that the process of struggling was central to learning mathematics.

“Students must learn that mistakes are central to the learning experience. Through struggling, students develop resilience and a ‘have-a-go’ attitude,” Dr Russo said.

“In struggling with a task, students come to understand that it is not about the answer, but the thinking used in arriving at those conclusions.

“Students need to experience struggle in order to think mathematically. They need to search for the answer. If they don’t experience this thought process, then they’re not learning anything new.”

A framework that proposes how teachers’ classroom actions are informed by their knowledge, dispositions, and the opportunities and constraints they anticipate experiencing, informed the research reported in this paper.

These factors are teacher knowledge of mathematics and pedagogy; teacher beliefs, values and attitudes; and environmental opportunities and constraints.

While the majority of teachers embraced the notion of struggle, others questioned whether it could further disadvantage underachieving students.

One teacher respondent said: “If it is a ‘challenge’ for high achieving students, the ‘struggle’ is a great thing as it pushes these students out of their comfort zone. However, if it is the underachieving student, the notion of ‘struggle’ has a different and more concerning definition”.

While the research found teachers’ attitudes towards struggle have shifted in Australian schools over the past decade, future studies must look at the difference between teacher perceptions of struggle and the practices they adopt in the classroom.

“Embracing struggle through encouraging and maintaining mathematical challenge is important; but it is only one aspect of excellent mathematics teaching,” Dr Russo said.

“Specifically, it is suggested that teachers need to incorporate more cognitively demanding mathematical tasks into their lessons and employ problem-based approaches to learning where students are afforded opportunities to explore concepts prior to any teacher instruction.

“Teachers also need to be willing to develop their pedagogical content knowledge, cultivate an enjoyment of mathematics teaching and learning, and have access to high quality resources and professional learning.”

Dr James Russo from Monash University’s Faculty of Education led this study, and was supported by Dr Ann Downton, Sally Hughes, Dr Sharyn Livy, Melody McCormick, and Emeritus Professor Peter Sullivan (Monash University); and Professor Janette Bobis (The University of Sydney).

To download a copy of the study titled: ‘Elementary teachers’ belief on the role of struggle in the mathematics classroom’, please visit https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0732312320300389?via%3Dihub

This project was funded by the Australian Research Council, Catholic Diocese of Parramatta and Catholic Education Melbourne (LP 180100611).