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Students Who Surprise Teachers When Learning Mathematics Through Problem Solving in the Early Primary Years

James Anthony Russo, Janette Bobis, Ann Downton, Sally Hughes, Sharyn Livy, Melody McCormick, Peter Sullivan


Teacher reluctance to teach mathematics through challenging tasks is frequently linked to beliefs that such approaches are not appropriate for students perceived as less mathematically capable. One potential means of shifting such beliefs is inviting teachers to reflect on students that surprise them when working on such tasks. Early years’ primary teachers (n = 160) participated in a professional learning initiative that supported them to implement up to ten sequences of challenging tasks in their classrooms across the school year. When asked to describe a student who surprised them when working on the sequences, approximately half (47%) of teachers described students previously assumed to be less mathematically capable being successful in their mathematical learning. Most remaining teachers (36%) commented on the depth of student mathematical thinking and positive learning dispositions demonstrated, without making any explicit reference to preconceptions of student capability. By contrast, a notable number of teachers (15%) instead described their surprise at how students labelled as mathematically capable struggled with working on tasks that were more open-ended, had multiple solutions, and required them to explain their reasoning. Our findings suggest that teaching with sequences of challenging tasks has the potential to disrupt rigid teacher preconceptions as to whom might be considered a mathematically capable student.

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