The Changing Face(s) of Teacher Professional Learning in Primary Mathematics in England

This is our fifth blog post from the EQuaLLS project.  In it we explore teacher professional learning in primary mathematics, how it has changed and is continuing to change as the school system is reformed in England.  We consider the nature of professional learning in mathematics and what high quality might mean in this context.

All primary teachers require personalised, career-long, mathematics-specific professional learning which includes continual development of both their knowledge about mathematics and about how to teach mathematics (ACME, 2016). Effective professional development improves teaching and ultimately children’s learning so is necessary in order to equip children with the mathematics they need to live and thrive within society.

In this blog post, we explore primary mathematics continuous professional development and learning (CPDL). In our third blog post, we explained why primary mathematics is our case study lens as we investigate Local Learning Systems (LLS) for teacher professional development. To understand evolving local systems we wanted a focus which had been a consistent priority over time, with reasonably well established and embedded systems and processes for professional learning.  Mathematics is ever-present within school improvement plans as a core curriculum subject, is a subject where many primary teachers are keen to develop their knowledge and is the focus of the most established of England’s hub models for developing teaching.

Introduced in 2014, the national network of maths hubs is led by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) and now consists of forty regional hubs. Last week’s NCETM newsletter exemplifies how teacher professional learning in mathematics has changed over recent years.  It publicises a podcast, CPD twitter chat and blended face-to-face/online subject knowledge programme. Some of the changes reflect opportunities afforded by technology, catalysed by the Covid-19 pandemic, where access and modes of CPDL have diversified.  

Changes across the wider school system in England (described in this previous blog post) have also had a significant impact on how CPDL operates, including in mathematics. The structures for supporting teacher CPDL in primary mathematics have changed almost unrecognisably over the past twenty years.  Where previously local authorities (LAs) were key providers this provision has been substantively replaced by maths hubs, education businesses and in-house approaches (although the extent of this varies across localities and school types).  The second and third of these have long existed in England’s education system but the extent and scale of their use has significantly increased as English policy has encouraged the development of a self-improving, school-led system.  Groups of schools in Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) can now use their pooled resources to share staff expertise, create CPDL and mathematics specific posts as well as use their collective buying power to opt for their preferred providers (sometimes related to specific schemes, programmes, textbooks or consultants). 

Reflecting on major mathematics education reforms from the past and present highlights some of the changes in primary mathematics CPDL. The National Numeracy Strategy (1999), later the Primary framework for literacy and mathematics (2006), used largely training and cascade models for CPDL through the network of LAs delivering centrally developed materials through out-of-school courses (such as the 3-day and 5-day training) for individual teachers and leaders.  CPDL materials were also provided to schools to lead their own CPDL twilight or day events.  Whilst effective at changing primary teacher attitudes towards mathematics and utilising high quality expertise through the LA consultants, the CPDL model did not provide sufficient iterative opportunities over time and expertise naturally became more diluted through the levels of cascade (Millett, Askew & Brown, 2004).

Teacher development within Teaching for Mastery (TfM) since 2014, uses largely transmission coaching (initiated into the practice of the mentor/coach) and community of practice models for CPDL. The network of school-based Maths Hubs lead ‘work groups’ of teachers from schools in their region with nationally set outcomes, using centrally developed materials.  In contrast to the national strategies, the spacing of sessions allows for practice-based development and iterative learning.  The collaborative element allows for more informal professional development opportunities alongside the formal (Boylan et al., 2018)

Although the Maths Hub ‘work group’ model has clear strengths, it also presents some challenges.  For example, unlike the national strategies model which employed experts full-time within the LA to lead CPDL, the school-led approach requires hubs to negotiate time out of class for expert teachers.  This is important as the CPDL could become more of a training model if the person leading it is unclear over the model and their role in it. There can also be challenges where individual teachers, rather than groups of teachers from the same school, participate in out-of-school CPDL (Clarke 1994), where issues of cascade and expertise dilution can persist. 

Alongside large-scale national policy moves, there have been many other sources of CPDL for primary mathematics. The Researching Effective CPD in Mathematics Education project (RECME 2009: 2) identified thirty CPD initiatives in 2007/8, for example, and classified them as either courses, within-school initiatives or networks. This demonstrates the breadth of CPDL that we need to capture in the EQuaLLS research.  CPDL has continued to expand since the RECME study was conducted with textbook, scheme and resource providers expanding their CPDL offers as well as private consultants and training companies.  There have been other developments, such as the adoption of lesson study approaches which can provide a strong model for primary mathematics CPDL in being practice-based, sustained over time, teacher ownership orientated and supported by expert facilitation.

Clearly, in order to research how and to what extent Local Learning Systems (LLS) provide high quality, inclusive professional development for teachers in mathematics, the EQuaLLS project team need to understand what high quality primary mathematics CPDL is. For this, we draw upon general and maths-specific research literature as well as the DfE Standard for Professional Development (2016) and EEF Effective Professional Development Guidance report (2021).  The maths-specific literature provides a range of criteria, goals, principles and elements which characterise high quality mathematics professional development. Heck et al. (2019), for example, summarise the elements of high quality mathematics professional development as: duration, content focus, coherence, active/practice-based learning, collective participation and expert facilitation.   

Primary teachers need maths-specific CPDL that develops a range of specialised teacher knowledge.

What is clear in the academic literature is that developing teachers’ Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (MKfT) is central to mathematics CPDL (Heck et al., 2019).  MKfT is the knowledge involved in teaching mathematics.  Adapted from Ball et al. (2008), it includes knowing both the subject matter (first three) and the Pedagogical Content Knowledge (final three):

  • the mathematics (own ability to do the mathematics)
  • the mathematics (the range of approaches or possibilities for doing the mathematics)
  • the understanding that supports and is supported by this mathematics (prior and future learning)
  • how to teach this mathematics
  • how children learn and understand/misunderstand this mathematics
  • the curriculum

Primary teachers need maths-specific CPDL that develops this range of specialised teacher knowledge. Generalist primary teachers join the profession with varied experiences and relationships with mathematics, including many that are negative (Hodgen & Askew, 2007). These prior beliefs and experiences are important as they mediate what teachers learn from CPDL (Ball, 1996) so a change in attitudes and beliefs is a worthwhile goal of CPDL (Guskey, 2002) and CPDL should build upon teachers’ current understanding and experiences (RECME 2009).  High quality CPDL is also underpinned by research evidence but this should be balanced with other types of evidence and critical engagement to avoid reducing teacher agency (Rycroft-Smith & Macey, 2021).  Attention to teacher agency in CPDL can also support quality where it addresses issues in mathematics teaching which are of concern or interest to the teachers (Clark, 1994).

The recent changes across England’s school system provide alternative mechanisms for teacher change (changing face) and different key players in mathematics CPDL (changing faces). In our view, Local Learning Systems have the potential to provide the opportunities, support and mechanisms for high quality CPDL, through the various features of a LLS that we identified in our first blog post. However, we also worry that the changes are more haphazard, providing differing levels of access, equity and quality for schools and teachers. The EQuaLLS team are currently interviewing school leaders, mathematics subject leads and class teachers in a sample of primary schools in three localities across England to find out about the source, nature, quality and impact of mathematics professional learning in these schools.  Future blog posts will report on what we find through our analysis of these and what this tells us about local learning systems for primary mathematics CPDL.

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