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'Make it Count': St Peter Claver, Riverview, Queensland

Indigenous workers and numeracy learning

The project | The Nerang cluster | The Indigenous education workers

The 'Make it Count' project

Caty Morris is manager of the 'Make it Count' project, which is hosted by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT). Here she discusses the project.



The project is working in regional and urban settings, which is where most of our Indigenous students are across Australia. There are eight clusters of schools, and in most cases each cluster has at least 100 Indigenous students.  The AAMT is delighted to be supporting practical progress in this area.

We're working with clusters of schools, that's our focus, and based on listening to educators and other leader in Indigenous communities we really want them to take on community engagement because we believe it's crucial to improving learning outcomes of Indigenous kids. Our challenge is finding that intersection and opening up some new space for learning, for new knowledge. So it's about developing culturally responsive mathematics pedagogy. But clusters are working on different approaches after looking at their data, the needs of their teachers and students and after consulting with their communities.

Each cluster has an academic working with them, who is a critical friend and someone to give advice and support the schools' work. Part of the role of clusters is to share their work with others and they are already doing that at conferences around the country.


Caty Morris

On the national level, we're building an online learning community open to all interested educators around Australia. The idea is that they can communicate and collaborate online, so they're not working in isolation. In that community we've got people in remote schools, in urban and rural schools, so it's a big cross-section. Anyone can join our Network Ning [a Ning is a kind of online social network].

There's research suggesting that around Year 3 or 4 kids are actually making sub-conscious decisions about whether maths is for them or not. And we want to impact on that.

Read the project aims...

The Nerang cluster and First Steps in Mathematics

Here in the Nerang cluster [near Ipswich, Queensland] the cluster has focused on the First Steps Number materials, which are based on extensive research and are for teachers of kids from the early years up to about Year 9. They're not a resource for students but they include a set of diagnostic tasks that help teachers see where kids are at and sample learning activities that will move kids on. They break things down into the key understandings that kids need to be able to progress.

The Nerang cluster wanted to consider First Steps for their schools and find approaches from First Steps that are particularly affective for their Indigenous students.  So as a result of this each school had a facilitator trained as part of the Make it count project, and that facilitator is now working with teachers and Indigenous Education Workers (IEWs) in the school. Each facilitator is a teacher in the school, and they have gone through seven days of training. There's a natural research component to it as well, because they'll try out the diagnostic tasks in the classroom, and then come back and discuss what happened in relation to their Indigenous students.

An example of a concept dealt with in First Steps is subitising. [Being able to subitise is being able to recognise that a group of things has, say, six members without actually counting them: See 'Related links' for a useful maths dictionary.] We can sometimes undermine students' understandings if we don't know that learning to count and learning to subitise are two different things. So if a teacher doesn't know much about subitising and favours counting they can undermine kids' ability to subitise. More examples...

The Indigenous education workers' views


Indigenous Support person Cheryl Quelhurst (left), Indigenous Liaison Officer Gloria Wilson (centre) and Caty Morris

St Peter Claver Principal Diarmuid O'Riordan was keen to give Gloria Wilson and Cheryl Quelhurst the opportunity to be trained in First Steps as well as his teachers. They accepted the invitation and were trained by Caty Morris in 2010. Here, they discuss their experiences.


I thoroughly enjoyed everything. At the start I wasn't sure how it would go, but I thought, 'let's see what's open to us'.


I enjoyed it too. The hardest part is thinking how we can incorporate it in work with kids but Caty guides us through that.


When we started we did the first six hours in a full day, just the three of us in a room. I had the laptop going and we sat down and worked through it. It was hard going in a way; I know it's hard, but as the day wore on I could see that Gloria and Cheryl were really getting into it. They kept thinking about the kids they work with, so they were able to draw out examples all along the way and they were saying things like 'oh that's why such and such can't do that'.


That's right. It wasn't all easy, but we started to see some of the things that kids were getting wrong and why they couldn't move on. Like today, we were looking at some diagnostic tasks Kim [not her real name] had done. She couldn't write down numbers bigger than a thousand. So if you dictated something about 10 million and five hundred thousand, she wouldn't be able to write it. Bigger numbers were all the same to her.


It makes me wonder whether she missed something in primary school because she's a bright student in other ways, but she seems to have these blocks. Like she gets lost in understanding what these big numbers mean and how to write them.


She doesn't really understand patterns of numbers and place value. So that's where she has been stuck.


Another example is the way kids count. We've learned a lot about that. You can see that some kids have to count by ones, so you know they haven't advanced from additive thinking to multiplicative thinking and that's really an important step in kids' progression.


I was sitting in the classroom with a student and I just happened to say 'how much time have we got left now?' and she looked at the clock and pointed, counting 'one, two, three, four... 20 minutes'. She was right. She was counting the blocks of five minutes on the clock and then using the fact that 'four times five equals 20'. She couldn't just look at it and say 20 minutes but she knew the number fact.


Kids often don't have much opportunity to do hands-on stuff. There never seems to be enough time for it, and the teachers feel they have a lot of work to get through. This is the problem that both Gloria and I have seen, particularly for Grade 8s where there seems to be a big leap from Grade 7 and if they've missed something at primary school it gets quite stressful for them.


Getting back to place value, we can talk about Tom [not his real name]. It's quite revealing when you're looking at kids' understanding of the relationship between tens, hundreds and thousands.


Well, Tom was asked to do a task that said 'circle the biggest number' which he did correctly but then when he was asked how many times bigger it was, he couldn't do it. And with another similar activity which involved division he couldn't do it when there were decimals. He just didn't want to attempt it and said it was too hard. So you can see straight away where he's stuck. Even a lot of kids who have learned the rules don't know why they're doing what they're doing. Maybe they didn't have enough hands-on experience?


That's a good question because it seems that kids need different pathways in their learning. Some kids manage without much concrete experience and some can't but that doesn't mean they are any less capable. I reckon with a lot of kids, there's so much that's invisible in maths and for the kids who know what the invisibles are, they're the ones who you know do alright. A good teacher will know what might be invisible and make it visible. When you think about maths it's really abstract isn't it, it's all that symbolic representation and kids don't know what those symbols mean if a lot of it is invisible to them.


After doing the First Steps I think I'd like to see a lot of hands-on stuff in maths classes and getting them do a variety of things where they can use maths to help them understand how, say, what kind of maths you need to be a boiler maker for example or a carpenter or whatever and to see actually how they use that maths. And that leads to ratio and proportions and things like that. I always wanted to find some kind of tool to be able to see where the gaps were in children's maths and how far back to take them. Now I feel I've got something that I can look up and find where they are. I've also learned about the way kids think, and how to recognise things like the place value problems and multiplicative thinking and that kind of stuff. And just noticing those things, before doing First Steps I wouldn't have noticed those things.




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