So, how did you get into research, Jodie?
I was a primary school teacher here in New Zealand, so I taught right across primary years, starting off with juniors and then moving up to teach in the more senior part of the school. I taught at a variety of primary schools across Auckland and while I was teaching, I did a masters of mathematics education. From there, I got a job at Plymouth University in the UK which was kind of my stepping stone into research. I had a research fellow position there in mathematics and statistics. But probably the motivation, specifically, was my grandmother, who is from the Cook Islands. When I first got into education, I was aware that a lot of children from Pacific backgrounds in New Zealand don't necessarily achieve as well as other groups. Because of my Cook Island heritage, I really wanted to work in schools where there were a lot of Pacific children. And really, as a teacher, I found that there's not any reason that Pacific children don't achieve as well as other groups, so I became interested in looking at research and work about how we can accelerate the achievement for Pacific children.
You spend quite a bit of time working with your mum, is that right?
Yes, actually that's really how I became interested in maths education. She's a teacher as well. When I was a child, for example, I'd spend time with her at school in the school holidays. Then when I was a teenager, I worked as a teacher aide at the school that she was working at, so that kind of got me into that. I swore for many years as a child I'd never be a teacher, and then … I finished my undergraduate degree at university and decided to be a teacher. When I first started teaching in a school, [mum] had just finished her masters and she was going to Australia to present a research paper for the first time. She [asked me to] go along and watch her presentation and support it. So I thought I'd go along for the holiday and then just go to the conference for a day. I ended up [being] really fascinated by the research presentations and things because, as a teenager, particularly at high school, I didn't have a very positive relationship with mathematics. It wasn't something I identified with and it wasn't anything that I really wanted to do myself. I found it a difficult subject both to connect with and to make sense of. But when I went to this conference and listened to all the research on how to teach maths effectively, I got very interested because I sat there thinking 'if I'd had the type of teaching that we're talking about here, it would have been a different story for myself'. My mother's been a mentor for me. We're really lucky to be able to work together.
That’s interesting. Don’t you need to have an enjoyment of maths to be able to research it?
Well, I think I was probably typical of a lot of children. I liked maths at primary school, I liked maths at intermediate, and towards the beginning of secondary school it was fine. But once I hit the later years … it wasn't something that I enjoyed. I think it was partly down to the way it was being taught, because then it was very much a case of the teacher saying ‘right, do this’ and showing on the blackboard then asking us to complete exercises. I walked away from school really thinking that that was the last time I'd have to do maths. In our research and work with schools and teachers, I think it's pretty typical for a lot of people. Our message in our work is that mathematics doesn't have to be like that. And often when people say that they're not good at maths they're not talking about what I really think is maths, they're talking about something that we do at school, which doesn't really reflect mathematics, it's more about their teachers showing something or trying to drill you on something and then you memorising it.
What about the Pasifika understanding or teaching of maths in terms of patterns etcetera? Did you experience any of that in your family growing up?
My grandmother does these Tivaevaes, so I'd always had that around us. She’d teach us the Cook Island dances and things like that, which have patterns in them, but I didn't really see the mathematics in those until later in my life. Tivaevae is mathematical and there's a lot of connection between dance and mathematics. But often you don't see those, and it wasn't until in more recent years that I've been able to look and the mathematics popped out at me. I think it's looking at things with a different lens sometimes, you start seeing things in a different way. What we've found with the children is that when we've done a bit of investigative work using tasks which come from the Pasifika context as opposed to normal school structure tasks …, the kids were much more readily able to generalise the Pasifika patterns than they were the non-Pasifika patterns. I think because the patterns are already familiar to the children, they're not having to struggle to make sense of that as the context. I've used those tasks with adults as well …and it was really interesting because suddenly they were seeing the kind of cultural patterns in a different way, seeing how they were mathematical.
What are some simple ways that teachers can introduce culturally responsive teaching into their maths classrooms?
There's a misconception that if you're from the Pacific, your cultural group doesn't have mathematics in your culture. So one of the things that we can do is look for the mathematics that already exists in people's lives because every culture has mathematics. I've been talking about craftwork and cultural artifacts, but I think it's just in your everyday life – you're always encountering mathematics, but for us as educators and teachers, we need to be very cognisant of what mathematics the children might see outside of school. We can use this as the basis to link between school and home. So that's one part of it. The second part, I think, is if we're talking about culturally responsive teaching, we need to be looking at the way that we teach mathematics and how we set our classrooms up. For example, in New Zealand we've had a strong history of using ability grouping. I think it is a practice that perpetuates the inequity we have in our education system. Often children from Pasifika or Māori backgrounds end up in a low ability group, so then they never have opportunities to show what they can really do, because they’re given low-level tasks. We need to think about how we can help our classrooms move away from ability grouping, but also things like thinking about the children's values and home backgrounds as a strength. The big focus of our work is thinking about strengths-based teaching. So if you've got children who come from a particular culture, think about what the strengths of that culture are and then build on them in the classroom. For example, people from Pacific Island nations often have a strong sense of collaboration or collectivism – working together to get things done and sharing knowledge, sharing leadership. As teachers, if we want to be culturally responsive, we need to think about how we can draw on that in the classroom.
What’s your hope for your children and for other children into the future?
I hope for a more equitable education system – for all children to have opportunities to succeed and to be able to do what they want to do. I don't think everybody has to go to university – it's not one pathway for everybody. But what I would like to see is that everybody has the choice to take the pathway that they want to take. I think one of the issues I have for Pacific children … is that children aren't necessarily given opportunities to do challenging mathematics. I don't mean just giving them abstract hard maths that they can't do, I mean challenging them and getting them to think about reasoning and things like that, but in a classroom environment that also supports them. So that's what I'd like to see for my own kids and other children, is that they're able to be challenged in the mathematics classroom in an environment which supports them to succeed.