CfEM blog: CfEM's focus on research

Blog by the University of Nottingham for the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme.

An important part of the work of the CfEM programme is its focus on research and aim to improve our knowledge base of what works towards improving teaching and learning of maths in FE. This strand of activity is led by the University of Nottingham and here our research team provides an update on outcomes of the Pilot trials of 2019-20, a recent scoping study to find out how about the impact of Covid-19 and the new research into teaching for Mastery.

 2019-20 Pilot Trials

All CfEM colleges were involved in some way in the pilot trials during the academic year 2019-20. Some trialled the Motivation and Engagement materials and approaches, and others will have been involved in trying out teaching approaches in the themes of Mastery, Technology and Contextualisation. These latter groups also took part in cluster meetings led by the ETF’s Regional Maths Leads (RMLs). Many thanks to all Centres for their cooperation in this pilot and to the RMLs for all their help in coordinating and running cluster meetings.

We were not able to carry out any impact evaluation, measured in terms of improved scores at GCSE, because the exams did not take place. However, the implementation and process of the trials were evaluated, finding that the trials were implemented in line with the intended approach. On the whole, learners engaged well with most of the lessons and approaches. They often valued going back to basics and being supported in engaging with active learning approaches using, for example, manipulatives and collaboration. There was some evidence that teachers were beginning to shift their practice towards the new teaching approaches and strong evidence that the teachers enjoyed and valued the professional development cluster meetings.

The role of the pilot trial was to inform what happens next. We learned a great deal from the pilots, and our learning has driven much of the design of the full trials planned to start in September 2021. We would like to thank everyone who gave us their time for interviews and surveys. We are particularly grateful to the ‘case study’ teachers who, in addition to giving us interviews, allowed us into their classrooms to observe them teaching the sample lessons.

 Scoping Study

Well, if there is one thing that’s certain about what teaching will look like in September – it’s that nothing is certain. Given the turmoil we have lived through during the last 12 months, and particularly with the cancellation of GCSEs in both 2020 and 2021, the research team decided that to plan for the remaining years of the programme we need to know what colleges have been doing about teaching during the covid-19 pandemic and what teaching and learning might look like in September and during next year.

Thank-you to those reading this who we interviewed: your input was really helpful and led us to what might seem an obvious conclusion: that there is no common approach.

We carried out interviews in November and December 2020, between lockdowns 2 and 3, and of course, now that we are in the extensive lockdown 3, predictions of what might be likely in September ’21 will potentially change from what was the best guess at that point. The pie charts show what was happening in 18 CfEMs in September ’20 and what was predicted for next year.  What seems clear is that there seems a definite move towards using more technology supported learning and not all students having face-to-face teaching at all times as in the ‘old normal’. Equally, there seems little intention to have all teaching done remotely.

University of Nottingham CfEM charts

We also found that approximately one-third of CfEM Leads were predicting a return to pre-Covid practices.

It seems that a lot has been learned during Covid times and there has been much experimentation to find out what works with a huge variety in what resources are being used.

Important from the research team’s perspective is that the research programme next year is designed to be able to account for this increased diversity of teaching practices – and, importantly, to be ready to operate in the ‘new normal’ of uncertainty!

Teaching for Mastery Research starting September 2021

Taking the findings to-date into account, and having consulted widely across Centres as well as talking to colleagues at the ETF and DfE, the UoN team has been working to put in place a research programme that cannot only be rigorous and effective, but can also be adapted to changing circumstances in these uncertain times. From this coming September our focus, therefore,  will be on an extensive research programme involving randomised controlled trials across the country of approaches to teaching for Mastery in FE colleges.

The project provides a rare opportunity for FE mathematics teachers to contribute to a large-scale research study that has the potential to make a significant effect on an area where, as we know, achievement rates are often disappointing. It builds on what, as a country, we have learned about teaching for Mastery in primary and secondary education. It is the first-ever large-scale opportunity to develop and implement a similar approach in the FE context. We’ve all become used to reading daily about research into what works in relation to Covid-19 vaccines, and about the randomised controlled trials being used all over the world. The Mastery in FE trials have many similarities – here is your chance to help us find out if we might have effective “mastery” treatments in maths learning!

We have a challenging recruitment target: 130 GCSE mathematics teachers in FE colleges. If you, or a colleague, will or should be teaching GCSE mathematics classes for 16-18 year-olds for at least part of your timetable next year, you and your college should be associated with a CfEM network. If your college isn’t already in that position we’d encourage you to join the project and start the process of joining a network.

You can find further details about how to get involved on the CfEM website. Alternatively, you can get started right now by completing the online application form. Do this as soon as possible to guarantee a place (deadline 1 May 2021).

As one of the teachers who worked on the early pilot trials puts it, “Why would you not want to be involved in something like this?”

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