Reimagining Professional Development for Mathematics Teachers: Using creative processes to support mathematics teachers in becoming curriculum-makers for climate change

How do creative processes support mathematics teachers in becoming curriculum-makers in relation to issues of climate justice? In what ways do mathematics teachers reimagine their own classrooms in relation to issues of climate justice? What curriculum materials and resources do mathematics teachers make based on these imaginings?

The world faces unprecedented challenges of ecological sustainability, including climate change, biodiversity loss and depletion of natural resources. Educators and researchers are well-placed to engage with these issues by considering how our curriculums can respond to these challenges. Little research exists on teaching mathematics for climate justice, especially since the responsibility for teaching climate related issues is often placed on teachers of biological/geographical sciences. Much of the way we read the world, however, depends on mathematical literacy and mathematics teachers are therefore well-placed to address particular issues of climate justice from a critical mathematical perspective.

According to a survey (Teach the Future), 70% of UK teachers say they are not adequately prepared to teach about climate change, thus, carefully designed professional development (PD) for teachers is vital. The PD of teachers is usually premised on a particular conception of teacher learning. Most often, others’ prescriptions of what teachers should know takes precedence over teachers’ own personal professional understandings of their growth. In the UK, ‘maths hubs’ have taken on PD for mathematics teachers which tends to be focussed on the mastery of mathematical concepts and processes as opposed to the development of mathematical literacy in relation to local/global issues.

What did the project involve? 

This research was motivated by the following questions:

  • How do creative processes support mathematics teachers in becoming curriculum-makers in relation to issues of climate justice?
  • In what ways do mathematics teachers reimagine their own classrooms in relation to issues of climate justice? What curriculum materials and resources do mathematics teachers make based on these imaginings?

This project involved the conception, enactment, and study of new and different approaches to the PD of mathematics teachers. The team sought to co-design PD that supports teachers in using their imaginations to go beyond the perceived constraints of school curriculum towards a reimagined mathematics classroom for climate justice.

As a group, the team had a shared ambition to positively tackle issues of climate justice from an educational perspective. They were all-female team, one of whom is disabled and two of whom are members of the LGBTQ+ community and come from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. Since climate-related research is often communicated from privileged, male, Eurocentric perspectives, the team felt they brought some of those voices that are often ignored within the discourse. Mathematics, art, and literary studies are also male-dominated worlds and the mathematics curriculum in schools is based on a traditional disciplinary silo model, a prevailing school model which they aimed to disrupt (by bringing it into question) as a way of engaging participating mathematics teachers in thinking beyond these normative structures. The team’s diversity of perspective and approach is integral to their work since it allows them to co-imagine these different approaches to working with mathematics teachers. They agreed that utilising creative and arts-based approaches to research and learning, alongside more scientific approaches (such as mathematics and climate science), would enrich the PD of mathematics teachers to offer more than traditional approaches to PD can do alone.

The researchers sought to position the workshop facilitators and participating mathematics teachers as curriculum-makers. They aimed to design and make a model for working with teachers of mathematics that would prepare them for the inevitability of curriculum reform in light of the climate crisis. The focus of the workshop facilitators was on making PD materials (including the design of the PD workshops). These materials were used to inform the creation of a Toolkit. These materials included speculative fiction tasks and artefacts, as well as texts that capture the co-design process.

During PD workshops, the participating mathematics teachers engaged in ideas-making/curriculum-making. Mathematics teachers were supported in being creative through the making of texts, performances, objects, and artefacts as a way of generating ideas and future curriculum imaginings. These creative processes and creations informed the making of curriculum materials for use in (or outside of) the classrooms of participating teachers. Teachers made these materials during the workshops and then trialled these materials with their students between workshops, feeding back and further modifying these materials in subsequent workshops.

The team aimed to document the physical processes of making, through time-lapse photography and the emotional and cognitive processes of making will be captured through reflective journaling, blogging, interviews and the creation of objects and artefacts.

The researchers interviewed the participating mathematics teachers in relation to their experiences of and in relation to the PD workshops, with a specific focus on creative processes and curriculum making. Each mathematics teacher was asked to keep a reflective journal and to use this journal whilst in school (to capture ideas and reflections on any teaching they did that connects to the ideas promoted by the PD they are engaging in). These journals were also used during PD sessions, through sharing reflections made whilst at school (including reflections on the trialling of curriculum materials) as well as gathering reflections that arise during PD workshops. The facilitators also kept reflective journals in relation to the design and planning process as well as to reflect on PD activities.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Tracy Helliwell (Mathematics Education, University of Bristol) leads the secondary mathematics PGCE, a one-year postgraduate course leading to qualified teacher status. Tracy has experience facilitating groups of mathematics teachers as a mathematics teacher educator since 2015. Her PhD research was focused on mathematics teacher learning and development, where she utilised creative analytical practices/
  • Klara Sroka (National Museum Wales) is both a practicing site-responsive artist and Community Engagement and Learning Officer at the National Museum, Wales. Her discourse explores the anthropogenic impacts of human industrial behaviours along coastal sites. She taught Art locally between 2004-2019 and co-created Wales’ first Democratic Free School and curriculum. Klara’s MFA thesis discusses how to make climate change visible by applying the theory of entropy using materiality as a creative methodology.
  • Lauren Hennessy (Education, University of Bristol) is a local mathematics teacher and researcher specialising in climate change education. She currently works at Gordano School and at UoB on multiple research projects, including the Climate Change Education Research Network. Lauren’s MSc dissertation focussed on young people’s climate activism, in particular the ‘Youth Strike 4 Climate’ movement.
  • Emma Geen (English, University of Bristol) is an author and lecturer in creative writing. Her first novel was the ‘The Many Selves of Katherine North’ (Bloomsbury, 2016). Her PhD research looked at the role of embodied empathy in fiction. She also works for the Bristol Disability Equality Forum on creating a Community Climate Action plan for Disabled people.
  • Emilia Alvarez (Mathematics, University of Bristol) conducts research in random matrices, probability, and statistics. As a Teaching & Research Fellow she has focused on developing her teaching practice alongside her research, designing and delivering multiple workshops for schools through the Widening Participation programme. Her current and future research is in applying random matrix theory to network science, machine learning and climate science.

What were the results?

The team aim to present methodology and findings (in relation to the research questions) at national and potentially international mathematics education conferences. For any journal papers they write as a group, they will target journals with methodological/futures foci.

The team also intend to create two blogs (April 2023, May 2023) recounting the project.

They are in the process of developing a toolkit for PD sessions with teachers.

Watch this page for future updates.