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Durham University

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Developing the use of visual representations in the primary classroom

A research project of the School of Education.


The Nuffield Foundation funded a research project that ran from September 2011 to July 2012.


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Developing The Use Of Visual Representations In The Primary Classroom (£37805.77 from The Nuffield Foundation)


The aim of this project was to involve 8 maths coordinators from the Durham region in professional development sessions looking at developing teachers’ use of visual representations for mathematics in the primary classroom. The sessions drew on the research on how we can use visual representations in the classroom, specifically looking at representations of multiplication and fractions.


Coordinators taking part in the project attended three one-day sessions, looking at how the research ideas on representations could be applied in the primary classroom. Coordinators were then asked to work with Year 3 and Year 5 teachers in their schools in order to try and incorporate these ideas into practice. The impact of the project was assessed through pre- and post-tests for pupils on multiplication and fractions, observations of Year 3 and Year 5 lessons, interviews with the Year 3 and Year 5 teachers, and interviews with the maths coordinators involved. In carrying out this project, there was an observed impact on the pedagogy of teachers involved and the mathematical understanding of pupils. The project provided an example for taking the research on representations and applying these ideas in schools, and therefore highlights improvements that we could make in the future.


The research progressed as planned and the project was completed on time with the finalised report submitted to the Nuffield Foundation in June 2013. Prior to this, the outcomes of the project included the following. The findings of the project were disseminated at a one-day conference held at Durham University in July 2012. Coordinators involved in the project were invited to present their experiences of being part of this project at this conference. In addition to the dissemination conference, the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM) has made the finalised report available through their website and so disseminated the project’s findings to teachers throughout the UK. The findings of the project have also been presented at conferences in the UK (British Society for Research into the Learning of Mathematics conference at Sussex University, June 2012) and also internationally (Psychology of Mathematics Education conference in Taiwan, July 2012). The qualitative findings from the study have also been published in the academic journal Educational Research in August 2013.


In both the finalised report and the presentations/publications, the results identified the impact of the project on mathematics co-ordinators and class teachers’ knowledge and practice. However, the nature of this impact was complex, with a variety of facilitating and hindering factors identified for the transfer of the professional development ideas on the use of visual representations. In addition, different levels of sophistication of class teachers’ use of visual representations were identified. These provide implications for the development of professional development programmes to facilitate the transfer of research, and also recommendations for the use of visual representations for teachers.


With regards the above outcomes from the project, there was a great deal of interest in the findings from the UK mathematics education community. I was asked by a representative of NCETM to present the findings of the project, alongside one of the head teachers involved in the project, at a meeting of teachers in Birmingham in March 2013. I have also been approached by an editor of a professional journal for primary mathematics teachers to write an article describe the findings of the results.


Further impact of the project has been on the teacher training taking place at Durham University, where the findings of the project now inform the input into student teachers. In turn, for the actual teachers/coordinators taking part in the project, they were very positive with regards the impact that the project has on them in their professional development. Some selective quotes from these teachers are given below:


Personally speaking I’ve enjoyed taking part in something where for the first time in quite a long time. I've had to focus on some aspect of the curriculum, and completely rethink the way it’s taught. As I said before there isn’t a lot of time for reflection in the profession at all, I don't think. And just the opportunity to be out of school at all, as school is inevitable busy, just to come here, it’s nice to have time.


I think it’s definitely made me be more reflective on my practice.


I think it’s been really valuable to reflect on your practice and we all bring very different things, we’re from different schools and we’re a very different group, but it’s been really interesting listening to everyone else, beginning to share ideas from their schools and you put them into practice.


In terms of follow up work, we have already carried out some related work, based on one of the conclusions from the project of teachers taking into account how children make sense of visual representations. We have carried out in July 2013 an eye-tracking study actually based in a school with pupils viewing representations of multiplication. We have written this work up already and this has been submitted to an academic journal. This will also be suitable for writing up in a professional journal.


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