Science of Learning Research Centre

Raising the performance bar in South Australia


“No-one cried”. That might seem a unique measure of success, however a program in partnership between the SLRC and the South Australian Department of Education and Child Development is already showing tangible improvement in NAPLAN numeracy results.

The Port Augusta-Quorn region of South Australia faces many of the challenges experienced around Australia with falling maths and science (STEM) participation and engagement. The education region takes in urban and rural communities, with up to 30% Indigenous students. An analysis of students’ numeracy performance (e.g., NAPLAN) across the region revealed that while mathematical knowledge and know-how was not dis- similar to the national average, their performance was significantly lower in questions involving problem-solving and reasoning.

SLRC researchers, led by Professor Martin Westwell of Flinders University, worked with public pre-school, primary and secondary schools across the Port Augusta-Quorn region in a program designed to innovate mathematics and numeracy teaching. A key aim was to build the cognitive skills that underpin students’ problem-solving, with particular focus on numeracy.

The approach was designed to bring about a shift in students’ perceptions of, and dispositions toward, maths, enabling them to feel more comfortable with uncertainty and making them want to tackle complex problems.

SLRC researchers worked closely with a group of lead teachers, enabling them to build evidence-based principles into their teaching practices. Those lead teachers then worked with groups of other teachers to impart the new skills, creating a scalable and sustainable model. The introduction of a ‘stretch and challenge’ approach, enabling students to embrace maths challenges, has had a tangible impact on student
performance, with significant improvements in the
region’s 2016 NAPLAN scores. In addition to the quantitative data showing improved performance, teachers reported major shifts in students’ thinking.

One teacher said that “NAPLAN in 2016 was completely different. No-one cried.” In previous years, student stress, demonstrated through their crying, was the response to not knowing what to do. Another teacher, identified that her class had scored particularly well on one NAPLAN question and asked her students to explain their experience. The students reported that they had identified that question as particularly difficult and had decided to stick at it rather than move on. In previous years, identifying a problem as being difficult was a reason students did not to attempt it. The teacher described this dispositional shift in the students as one of her “proudest moments as a teacher.”

This SLRC initiative has demonstrated the principle that shifting student perceptions toward embracing challenge creates STEM-ready learners, better equipped to stick with STEM subjects throughout their educational journey. This regional level intervention was heavily drawn upon in the development and delivery of the South Australian state-wide “Results+” numeracy and literacy strategy.

The national scope of the SLRC enables these positive results to benefit other states, with Flinders University-based SLRC researchers invited to present this work to the Queensland Department of Education and Training.