Tuesday 1 April 2014

What's really happening in adult numeracy classrooms

I have been asked to present at the National Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy symposium in Wellington this year.  I have almost always been asked to speak on a specific area but this year I plan on presenting some findings from my research.

The presentation is called:

                        What’s really happening in adult numeracy classrooms.  

The background to the research is this:  While we were learning maths in school, we were also learning lessons about what maths is, how maths is learned, and what it means to be good or bad at maths.  For many learners who struggled with mathematics these ‘lessons’ have resulted in beliefs that now constrain or inhibit positive engagement with numeracy.   Now in the tertiary sector, these learners are required to re-engage with numeracy.  The question is:  How do adults' beliefs about mathematics relate to cognitive and affective engagement in numeracy contexts?

To answer this question I have entered multiple adult numeracy classrooms and placed microphones around the room.  I then observed the classes, videoed the classes and listened to ALL of the conversations that took place simultaneously during the class.  The recordings reveal what learners really think and do while ‘participating’ in numeracy lessons.  I have also triangulated these findings with surveys and interviews. 
The symposium presentation will cover the findings – which are fascinating.
A brief overview
Four themes emerged (some of which I've discussed on this blog).

Pedagogical preferences and expectations
This theme describes how learners approach the learning of numeracy and their expectations for numeracy classes.  It reflects learners’ beliefs about ‘how’ a ‘good’ numeracy class should operate.  Divergences from learners’ expectations are viewed as inefficient or superfluous and therefore prevent full engagement in the very activities that support development.

Reasoning and engagement
This theme describes the discourse patterns that dominated each of the classrooms observed.  There is a quick review here and here.  This reflects the learners’ beliefs about how numeracy is learned and the goals that support these.

Emotion and attitude
This theme emerged in response to the highly emotive nature of numeracy lessons.  You can read more here.  I haven’t released the attitude component yet but it will stir the hearts of tutors (yes, we do make a difference).

This theme describes learners' strategies to either protect, raise or modify their status within the class.  The findings are nuanced yet reveal almost everything about the beliefs learners hold about what being good at math means.  The findings are not predictable and our New Zealand context is different to the States, the UK and Aussie.  We really are wired up a bit differently.

Then I’ll move into a ‘where to from here’ moment, have an open discussion and ‘hey presto’! Done!

Anyway, the presentation should be great.  Bit of drama, bit of controversy, and some very interesting findings.

Love to see you there!    Come and say hi.


  1. Sounds fascinating. I'm especially interested in the theme about protecting ourselves and our status in the eyes of our peers. I hold the 'belief' 'maths is hard' and is for 'smart people', one of whom I am not...clearly because 'I am not good at maths'...this belief stops me risking any interaction in groups lest I prove myself right and embarrass myself!

  2. The word 'dumb' came up a lot in relation to people feeling like their intelligence was on public display. What was interesting also was that there were occasions of people reducing their skills so as not to be too different from their friends. Pretty hard to master numeracy if you have to reduce your skills!

  3. Awesome Damon. Can't wait to catch the drama and controversy at the conference. Don't hold back... that's all I have to say...