Which are the challenges in teaching mathematics in the Romanian primary schools?


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A large majority of teachers (71%) viewed coping with different student ability levels as challenging at mathematics in the primary education, reveals the Romanian Primary Mathematics Study conducted by the British Council, the education and cultural relations organization of Great Britain and the Romanian-American Foundation initiated a research academically coordinated by the University of Bristol, and presented this week Professor Alf Coles from the University of Bristol, President of the British Society for Research in Mathematics Learning.

The research surveyed 775 primary teachers, 1.6% of the entire primary teaching population in Romania. 46% of the respondents taught in rural schools, 54% in city or town schools, across 10 counties.

Another challenges in teaching Maths mentioned by the surveyed teachers were the lack of teaching resources (didactic materials or digital resources) and the need for more training for primary education teachers.

“We found many teachers saying they would like more professional development opportunities than they have available. There is a need for high quality courses on mathematics teaching and practical courses. While there are many resources available, many of these courses are not relevant, and, more importantly, it is difficult for a teacher to make a choice because the training offer is not explicit and had not been tested for effectiveness“, the authors of the study pointed out.

However, the survey highlighted an encouraging result, namely, the majority of students surveyed confessed that mathematics was their favourite subject or one of their favored subjects, which came as a surprise even for the experts of the study.

The authors of the survey noted that there were strong contrasts in teaching practices observed and differences in overall school attainment data. In weaker lessons, it was found that teachers showed video recordings to students, rather than teaching or explaining themselves. The tasks given to students were often routine, with little problem-solving. In schools with low outcomes, students were often absent for long periods and were missing basic information and knowledge in mathematics.

The recommendation of the experts was that schools require more teaching resources and more support to counter absenteeism and lank of parental engagement. “It would make sense to focus training and resources on those students currently showing the weakest attainment in mathematics, who tend to be students in rural areas, and students suffering socio-economic deprivation, which is found in all schools.”

The study also noticed a common practice in Romanian primary education, including at mathematics classes, namely the one of students coming in front of the classroom and writing on the board, addressing the whole class, a practice the authors named as “chalk talk”. “This practice is working well in some cases, allowing opportunities for students to explain their reasoning to explain their reasoning. In other cases, the student at the board engages in a 1-1 conversation with the teacher and there is a little benefit for the rest of the class, who wait just to copy down the solution”, the study determined. Professor Alf Coles revealed that this practice is not used in UK , while in other countries, such as Japan, there is the practice of inviting more students at once at the board to solve the math problem (with the mention that the classrooms here are equipped with a longer board, stretching across an entire wall).

From our lesson observation, it seemed there was relatively little <student agency>, meaning opportunities for students to explain their reasoning or for discussions that build on student ideas. When asked by the teachers, students do not like to explain the reasoning, even if they know how to solve the exercise correctly.  They like to explain to their peers, however, there is little use of group work in mathematics lessons. There were also relatively few uses of assessment in lessons, meaning actions of the teacher designed to check the on-going understanding of a class, leading to adaptations in the teaching as a result. These are both areas of pedagogy which could usefully come into focus in training“, the authors of the study said.

Another common practice across Romanian primary schools was the use of textbooks and the setting of homework. In many cases, homework is overloaded, unstructured and sometimes not checked.

“Training is needed, which is designed to meet teachers’ need and which supports collaboration in schools. Areas of potential need include: developing students agency on problem solving; developing uses of assessment and ways to support individuals; enhancing subject knowledge; supporting teachers in effective use of textbooks and homework. However, given the ubiquity of the practice of students explaining ideas at board, we consider it a matter of priority to support the effective use of this strategy, through research and training”, the authors of the survey pointed out.

All experts also stressed the need for more hours of practicing teaching skills in initial training, as prospective teachers are very poorly prepared in mathematics, while teaching careers are unattractive.

Another complaint from teachers and headteachers was that the primary curriculum is overloaded with content and does not provide a good preparation for middle and secondary school.

A key concept in primary mathematics is that of “number”. In both curriculum and in text books in Romania, the number concept is presented as expressing a characteristic of a set of objects.

We note that there is research suggesting balancing cardinal, ordinal, and measure aspects of number, from the start, can bring significant benefits. The case for curriculum reform could be explored further. Experimental research into alternative approaches to developing the number concept in Romanian schools could provide important evidence for potential curriculum reform”, the authors of the study suggested.

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