A number of people have recently mentioned to me an Australian teaching programme known as Maths Pathway. The ‘co-founder and chief visionary’ is Richard Wilson, a former management consultant who appears to have taught for a period of time before starting the enterprise with Justin Matthys, a Teach for Australia alumnus. Interestingly, the advisory board is a firmament of Australian educational luminaries.
The programme has it all including growth mindsets, personalised learning, rich learning, differentiation, ‘targeted explicit teaching’ and data-informed practice. However, it also makes a claim to be ‘evidence based’. Which is a strong claim.
For instance, large scale studies of growth mindset interventions have failed to show much of an effect and differentiation lacks a clear definition and supporting evidence. If you look at the images used on the Maths Pathway website, you see students mostly sat at computers while the teacher is interacting with a small group. This is the kind of personalised learning that has led to fairly mixed results.
Personalised learning is also not new. When I was in primary school, I did SMP Maths. This involved taking a laminated card from a box, completing it, and then going back to the box to swap it for another laminated card. It was pretty boring and I still remember the day that the teacher abandoned the boxes and actually taught us something. There is an emotional connection when a person tries to communicate with you that is absent from cards and computers and that probably accounts for the ‘embodiment effect‘ found in multimedia learning.
It is pleasing that the evidence for explicit teaching is sufficient for an enterprise like Maths Pathway to use it as part of its pitch, but we need to bear in mind that the evidence base for explicit teaching comes from studies of whole-class explicit teaching. At first look, it seems obvious that a more tailored approach will work better for students, but you have to consider the trade-offs: A whole class receiving instruction together that may not be tailored to their precise individual needs may well be more effective than far shorter periods of more personalised instruction interspersed with lots of time alone in which to become distracted.
When it comes to rich learning, this strikes me as the kind of thing that some in the maths teaching world like to stroke their beards about:
“Rich Learning is an engaging experience for the whole class, where mathematical concepts are explored using open-ended activities with multiple entry and exit points. This type of learning focuses on developing critical thinking and reasoning skills and encourages students to think like mathematicians with no assessment involved.”
The evidence-base for asking relative novices to behave as experts is very weak, at best.
No matter my doubts, Maths Pathway claim to have evidence that their approach works. They seem to have developed a rubric with levels going from 1 to 10A, which I assume is intended to correspond with the year level objectives of the Australian Curriculum. When they assess students prior to starting Maths Pathway, they find they have made a lower rate of progress along the Maths Pathway levels than after they have been in the programme for a while. Interestingly, they then use this to generate a massive ‘effect size’ of 1.42 which they then compare favourably with John Hattie’s effect sizes for things like direct instruction (0.60).
I’m not convinced Hattie’s effect sizes are a particularly sound way to gauge the effectiveness of different educational approaches, but used in this way, I can’t imagine even Hattie would approve. Clearly, testing students using a rubric that the programme is designed around will show a benefit for participants in the programme. The assessment questions are likely to be similar to the course materials.
Unfortunately, school leaders are probably unaware of these kinds of criticisms. Coupled with the fact that Maths Pathway is aligned with rhetoric from the recent ‘Gonski 2.0’ review about personalised learning and mapping individual progression, you can see why the programme is popular and has grown to include over 35,000 students as of December 2017.
Although I have my doubts, Maths Pathway could potentially be an effective teaching programme. It may be a positive step in the right direction, particularly for schools whose current maths programme is weak or who lack specialist maths teachers.
Is Maths Pathway evidence-based? That depends on the standard of evidence you apply. I would use the term to refer to programmes that are supported by evidence from randomised controlled trials or, at the very least, lots of high quality epidemiological studies using standardised tests as the outcome measure. I would not apply it to a before and after study using a test designed by the programme developers.