Malcolm Swan Lecture

I, along with many others, attended Professor Malcolm Swan’s session on teaching mathematics at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education last week, as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series. Malcolm is the Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Nottingham and was one of the principal movers of the Shell Centre and its series of excellent resources for mathematics education. I am still using the materials from their publications Space and Number and Algebra and Graphing, which came out in 1985.

A copy of his PowerPoint slides and a downloadable audio stream are available at the website I’ve linked above.

He started by reviewing what we know about the transmission model of teaching mathematics:

*XXX teaching : Xplanation, Xample, Xercise (which I fear is still very much prevalent)

*Content/procedures are ‘covered’

*Learning is an individual activity based on listening to the teacher and imitating (templating)

*Teaching is linear and text-dominated

Sound familiar?

He then contrasted this list with the one for a collaborative learning/intellectual challenging mathematics classroom:

*network of ideas

*social activity/discourse

*students are challenged through prompting-thinking questions that offer cognitive dissonance

*recognition of misunderstandings, making these explicit and learning from them (effective feedback)

Readers of this blog should also find THIS list familiar!!

He mentioned some great ideas for the thinking-prompt questions that could engender some great student discourse and also elicit some misconceptions for the teacher to work with:

For example: Hand out numbers on cards to groups of students (eg.square root of 2, four-fifths, cube root of 8, negative 7 etc) and ask students to write down everything you know about, or can find out about, this number

He spoke about the need for teachers to deliberately plan for students to move from a passive role in maths classes to  being more active learners. What types of learning do we value in mathematics? Do the learning activities we use reflect these values?

Malcolm also talked about how fluency is essential for some things in maths (eg.multiplication facts, knowing how to solve an equation) and that these forms of knowledge and types of skill  can be practised on one’s own. Interpretations of concepts and transferring concepts across multiple representations, however, need to be a product of discourse. This is an important point for what we set as homework.

There were a few interesting ‘compare and contrast’ lists he used in his presentation.

One of these was the tensions/conflicts list:

Content Coverage        versus        Reflection and creativity

Convergence on important           Openness of investigations   

theorems (learn this)                       (Explore this)

Illustrative Applications                 Real life problem solving

(Use a particular process)              (Use any effective process)


Another list was the Effectiveness of Teaching Approaches:

More Effective Approaches                                                                 

1.Offer challenge before help 

2.Listen before intervening   

3.When students can’t explain, don’t let them off the hook          

4.Elicit interpretations and methods                                                   

5.Discuss ways of working                                                                         

Less Effective Approaches

1.Offer help before challenge

2.Intervene before listening

3.When students can’t explain, explain for them

4.Elicit facts and answers

5.Tell students what to do

I think it is well worth a look at his PowerPoint slides.


About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Ideas for teaching & learning, Pedagogy, Students, Thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Malcolm Swan Lecture

  1. Hi Linda – just stumbled across your blog while googling “Malcolm Swan”. Several of us from Fitzroy attended his lecture last week and loved it. Thanks for the summary on your blog – I didn’t take many notes and I can pass on your blog to interested colleagues. Malcolm’s ideas and observations (and empirical research) make so much sense BUT we still see so much transmission-style teaching!



  2. Linda says:

    Thanks for the comment, John…and passing the link on. I agree that it is difficult to make a change from a methodology of teaching mathematics that has been so ingrained over the years. It’s amazing how quickly people can alter their practice after trying out a different approach, however, and seeing how their students respond. It just takes time, patience and determination. Good luck.

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