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The INISSS Project

Teach what you want known, test what you want taught

The context | Professional development | The resources | The results |

The context


Vicky Nicholson (right) with participants

The 'Improving Numeracy for Indigenous Secondary School Students' (INISSS) Project was conducted through the Aboriginal Education Unit of the Tasmanian Department of Education, with Vicky Nicholson the project officer. The material below is drawn from interviews with her, and with Rosemary Callingham (University of Tasmania) and Ian Smith (Rose Bay HS) who were project facilitators. Other comments come from a professional development presentation given in Hobart in May 2001 by seven teachers (including Ian) and a parent. Ian also generously provided notes from a presentation made to teachers in Adelaide in July, 2001.

The INISSS Project was mounted in response to Indigenous students' poor numeracy achievement in statewide testing in 1997. The Year 9 numeracy assessment and monitoring program showed that 50.7% of Indigenous students were working at or above Year 8 Key Indicators of Numeracy Outcomes (KINOs), compared to 70.6% of non-Indigenous students.

The goal of the program was to improve the numeracy outcomes of all students involved, but particularly those of Indigenous students — to close the gap between the achievement levels of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Professional development

As Ian remarked 'if we're going to improve the situation we're going to have to change our teaching methodology… and how the hell do we do that?'


Rosemary Callingham (left) and Ian Smith with Carol Beasley

The program provided professional development to 40 teachers and Aboriginal Education Workers in 19 project schools. The professional development aimed to develop teachers' skills in teaching for numeracy in ways that appeared to support Indigenous students' learning. This included small group work and practical investigations and, to support this, Mathematics Task Centre materials were used. These had been developed by a team led by Doug Williams for Curriculum Corporation, in collaboration with Indigenous communities in Queensland.

The professional development focusing on improving pedagogy was provided at two-day residential sessions as well as single days over the course of a year. At each professional development session teachers undertook to trial some aspect of new teaching methodology in their classrooms, and then report on the outcomes at the next session.

Programs always included an activity to enhance participants' knowledge and understanding of Indigenous culture, practice with Task Centre activities, development and trialling of assessment tasks, a 'show and tell' focused on the outcomes of recent teaching experiences coupled with a great deal of group interaction and team building.


I think it's really important that the people who came to the professional development programs were absolutely involved in the process of learning and that we modelled the learning and assessment tasks in ways that got people involved and investigating new things. They were learning, and in a position that kids are often put into. They didn't necessarily know the answers and they had to go about working out how to do that among themselves.

Nobody was expected to work on their own, we worked in groups, in pairs, and as teams. The idea was to have a lot of fun and to be curious about the outcomes rather than worry about whether we're good enough.

The people who came — teachers, parents, project officers and supporters — worked in completely mixed ability groups. It just didn't matter what people's perceived mathematical knowledge was. As a result, we ended up with some really successful outcomes, just within the actual PD programs themselves, because you see that everybody has got something to offer.

The resources

Some of the features of the Task Centre materials are that they are intended to activate concrete and visual learning and involve significant challenge. A good task has multiple levels of success and multiple entry and exit points, while balancing skill and process outcomes. The tasks are also intended to have three 'lives' — for a 10 minute challenge, a whole-class lesson and an extended investigation. They are designed to encourage high levels of access and engagement and to diminish the 'trepidation' factor.


We were very lucky early on in our project to pull Doug Williams in. He had been working with the Task Centre idea of teaching mathematics and that was a big plus and, in a sense, he almost was able to answer our question for us very early on — that by changing our way of operation we can engage Indigenous kids much more readily.

The tasks that we used are basically tasks which can be done on three levels — with kids working in pairs, on their own or as a whole class. They go from actually solving the problem to generalising the problem and then at a third level to investigate the problem at a much deeper level.

One of the things about all of these tasks, which is really important, is that they have this sort of depth. We've coined the term 'iceberg'. You have a task you can see you can do, but underneath it is this wealth of richness of mathematics and numeracy. That is what has set these tasks apart from some other ones which include manipulative materials, but provide fairly shallow activities.

I was intrigued with this because it gelled with what I had been trying to do in my own inadequate way for the last 30 odd years, and it's given a new dimension to my teaching. I was able to take these ideas, put them together with my own past practice, slot it into that kind of mode and my teaching pattern changed.

The results

The results in the table below reflect three periods of testing of approximately 2000 Year 8 and subsequently Year 9 students, with about 18 months separating the beginning and end points. The professional development occurred in the first 12 of those months. Teachers' reactions to the project were enthusiastic.

The results from INISSS were reported to schools against levels of a generalised learning sequence.

At the first assessment (A1), it was clear that, although there were some Aboriginal students achieving well, over 53% of the Aboriginal students were located in Levels 1 to 4, compared with 40% of the non-Aboriginal students. The gap was in the order of 13 percentage points.

By the third assessment (A3), the percentage of Aboriginal students in Levels 1 to 4 had dropped to around 25%, compared with 19% of non-Aboriginal students. The gap was reduced to 6 percentage points.

This result suggests that the INISSS program had met its intended outcome of improving numeracy for all students, but particularly for Indigenous students and even more particularly for female Indigenous students, whose performance on the final test was very nearly equivalent to that of non-Indigenous students.

Patrick Griffin (University of Melbourne) and Rosemary Callingham designed an assessment process to go with the INISSS work.


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