New maths inclusivity approaches for students with Down Syndrome

24 November, 2020

Research has uncovered key approaches teachers can use to be more inclusive in their classrooms when teaching mathematics to students with Down Syndrome.

IEU-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke said the research was promising and would help ensure teachers and school officers could work towards creating more inclusive maths classes for students’ intellectual impairments and disabilities.

“Teachers are skilled at adapting their lessons and making adjustments to ensure students of all ability levels are included in meaningful learning,” Mr Burke said.

“This research supports our union’s position that teaching staff are highly trained professionals and their professional judgement can be used to creatively and effectively cater to learners so no students are excluded,” he said.

Researchers Dr Rhonda Faragher from the University of Queensland and Dr Barbara Clarke from Monash University worked alongside 15 teaching teams including classroom maths teachers, specialist teachers and support staff, to examine how innovative approaches to teaching mathematics can benefit the learning of students with Down Syndrome.

Four key themes identified

Dr Faragher said the findings highlighted four key themes that teachers needed to consider when teaching maths to students with Down Syndrome.

1. Hold back from “telling” the answer, so students can develop strategies for monitoring their own progress

“There is a tendency to give a struggling child the answer particularly when under pressure to keep up with the rest of the class,” Dr Faragher said.

“A more appropriate response would be to make an adjustment that is manageable but challenging for the child, keeping in mind the value of students thinking for themselves and learning this way.”

2. Deciding what kind of maths to teach

According to Dr Faragher, some teachers experienced a tension between teaching the maths curriculum and what they thought a student might need in the future (so-called functional mathematics).

Others challenged the issue of a student’s “readiness” to learn a particular topic, demonstrating that a student could be included in a lesson on fractions, even if they were unable to confidently count a collection of ten objects.

3. Ensuring all students learn on the same basis

Teaching teams noted their students with Down Syndrome liked to be included and seen to be doing the same work as their classmates, so in response, teachers creatively adjusted lessons to include the student in the learning activity.

Dr Faragher emphasised that effective inclusive practice does not imply all students must do identical work.

“In one instance, the use of an iPad allowed the student with Down Syndrome to engage with the concepts of the lesson, thereby doing ‘the same work’ through supports to learning what she needed,” Dr Faragher said.

4. Effective use of resources

Resources used by teaching teams were standard ones likely to be found in maths classrooms, although many were creatively repurposed, with the teacher bearing in mind the needs of the individual students.

Frequently used resources included iPad applications and magnetic counters on frames.

Creative adjustments to content promising

Dr Faragher said underpinning all four themes was teachers’ expectation that “the students with Down Syndrome could learn the maths.”

Teachers are required to make adjustments at their professional discretion — adjustments which remove barriers to learning, rather than to simply make the work “easier” for students with Down Syndrome.

Researchers said despite the complexities of teaching in this environment, they were encouraged by the creative methods teachers used to engage students and the sharing of their developing expertise.

“We cannot be sure what a child with Down Syndrome learns from mathematics classroom experiences but we can be sure that if the teacher restricts the task, language used, challenge, or choice of approaches, this immediately excludes the child and limits opportunities for them to learn as much as they are able currently and in future contexts.”

Read the full study here.

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