Forget the fads: Maths teachers urged to focus on traditional teaching methods

Inquiry learning involves teachers starting with a range of scenarios, questions and problems for students to navigate, instead of presenting information or instruction directly.

“Helping teachers to substitute faddish and evidence-free practices with proven, effective teaching will lift outcomes of students,” Powell said.

The report argues in favour of explicitly teaching students mathematics skills first and later encouraging independent practice and application of skills.

“While some students may thrive with true inquiry-based learning, their success is an exception rather than the standard outcome,” the report said.

But Australian Catholic University STEM research director Professor Vince Geiger said teachers should be able to incorporate both explicit teaching and inquiry learning into their teaching. He said the research paper appeared to be reflective of a very specific point of view.

“It does amaze me when people put these ideas up as a juxtaposition,” he said. “The best teachers I know take the position that you need to do some of both.”

Geiger said the PISA results indicated Australian students were not falling short in their procedural maths abilities but rather in reasoning and problem-solving.

“We’ve got to get our kids to be better at adaptive type thinking – taking what they learn in the classroom and being able to apply it in different situations and contexts and real-world situations,” he said. “Explicit teaching by itself won’t get them there.”

Debate over the merits of inquiry-based mathematics learning and explicit teaching split the profession during a recent debate about Australia’s proposed new national curriculum.

Head of mathematics at Northholm Grammar School Phil Waldron said his school had a strong focus on direct instruction, where every step of a maths problem was directly modelled by a teacher for students, which was producing excellent results.


“The report reinforces the idea that students’ understanding is developed by the teacher and that it’s easy for the teachers to take students’ knowledge for granted and therefore miss steps in instruction,” he said.

“The problem with inquiry learning is that students are often left to figure it out for themselves and it’s all based on prior understanding and contextual understanding for them.

“You always need a foundation, you can’t start with inquiry, students need a level of understanding before they start to think for themselves.”

Waldron said inquiry learning was promoted as best practice through his teacher training at university.

“I’ve been blessed with professional experience that was somewhat counter to what I walked away from university with,” he said. “And now the evidence is suggesting that what these older staff members were doing is, in fact, the best way.”

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