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Combining physical activity with maths

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Combining physical activity with maths

While low levels of physical activity among children and adolescents remain a concern in Australia, student engagement in the maths classroom also requires attention. One pilot program in New South Wales sought to tackle both issues simultaneously.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle (Dr Adam Lloyd, Dr Nick Riley, Dr Narelle Eather and Dr Andrew Miller ) designed and implemented the program, where students from one small, low SES primary school took part in three 10 minute sessions of maths-related High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for eight weeks.

One member of the research team conducted the sessions for the first four weeks, before handing the task over to the classroom teachers for the final four weeks. Lloyd – who is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Education and Head of Faculty (Mathematics and Movement) at Snowy Mountains Grammar School – tells Teacher the idea for the trial came about after he and Riley were approached by the primary school.

‘They had heard of some of the work Dr Riley had been doing called Thinking While Moving in Maths, which is a significant teacher professional learning run in New South Wales government schools since 2015, developed in partnership with the University and the NSW School Sport Unit. I think in excess of about 500 teachers from over 280 schools have been trained in delivering Thinking While Moving in Maths, and that’s been primarily based on the findings of Dr Riley’s PhD. Basically, the program looked at the effect of integrating movement into mathematics lessons.

‘From that we developed some of those concepts … and then with my maths [teaching role] hat on, thinking how can we integrate maths and movement and deliver to a whole school? But also thinking of a way we can do it in this particular school, which was a K-6 school, with minimal equipment, minimal time, with maximum effect. And that’s where HIIT came about.’ This is Eather’s area of expertise. She has been investigating the impact of HIIT on physical, mental and cognitive health in young people – through short bursts of activity.

Lloyd says there’s lots of research showing HIIT is a highly effective way of improving physical fitness, but the concept of having Grade 2, 3 or 4 children doing push ups on the oval or doing high intensity sprints may not be very engaging for them and they might not see the point. So the emphasis was firmly on fun activities that would get the students’ heart rates up.

Introducing mathematics into physical activity

Activities were completed each morning in the school hall and green space after assembly, which ensured minimal disruption to the students’ schedules. Some teachers linked the HIIT content to maths lessons later in the day, but there was no requirement to do so. ‘If they wanted to focus on odds or evens or counting backwards or something else that was currently being taught then they were able to integrate that within the sessions and [make those connections],’ Lloyd explains.

Activities included skipping and using agility ladders. Most of the time, students would choose which activity they’d like to do and often sessions included competitive group activities.

Numeracy was incorporated into each activity differently, depending on year level and ability. ‘We had students doing exercises through the agility ladders and doing their times tables.’ Often they would incorporate a ball catch at the end of that activity. As for the students skipping – that was more of a high intensity, 30-second session of skipping and then a rest, Lloyd explains. While they were resting, the students would be doing something maths related.

Lloyd says there was no need for fancy, expensive equipment. ‘We had agility ladders – training ladders that you step in, step out. We had a few of them, they’re not an overly expensive item, but at the same time we also had chalk there, so should they have not been available we would just draw a ladder on the ground. The other main bits of equipment were bean bags (we had numbers on them) and then we had balls,  dice and really basic little portable whiteboards so we could write different activities on them, and a whistle and a stopwatch. Not really much more than that.’

In a post-program survey, students reported one of their favourite HIIT sessions was one based on the popular school game ‘Rob the Nest’. Students are split into groups and members of each group have to run and collect bean bags (with numbers on them) for their nest. ‘It can be really quick, like 30 seconds or even up to a minute of intense running around, and the kids just love it because of that competition aspect to it. So they’ve done their intense activity and we need about 30 seconds rest here, and so for that 30 seconds we have them in their groups sorting their bean bags and saying ‘okay can you collect all the even numbers?’ or all the odd numbers, or ‘can you arrange those bean bags from smallest to largest?, or ‘can you make the largest number possible?’.

The primary measure was fitness (researchers used a modified yo-yo test, which is a more age-appropriate version of a beep test; standing broad jump test and basketball throw test), but they also looked at maths skills and maths anxiety.

Improving fitness levels and confidence in maths

Lloyd admits he didn’t expect to see much of a change in the maths ability of students, because intervention period was so short. ‘We had measured engagement in the classroom or on-task behaviour and that was statistically better post intervention. What the teachers were saying [was] they thought it was really efficient but, at the same time, they thought they could link [the maths] later in the day.’

When collecting feedback from the teachers involved, a Grade 3 and 4 classroom teacher noticed another way which the trial was effective, saying: ‘The students love the lessons, especially any activities that were competitive. I also think it gave many students the opportunity to practice their maths skills without the fear of failure as they were only practising with themselves.’

Reflecting on this feedback, Lloyd says: ‘If you imagine doing an agility ladder, you’re skipping through it and doing your times tables, they might have just been saying that quite quietly to themselves. It wasn’t like they were being called out by their friends … it was actually just for them.’

Ideally, Lloyd would like to extend this trial to a high school setting, particularly for Year 7 and 8 students. ‘It’s a big change when you go [from] primary school to high school. Often kids get lost or they get disengaged because the maths is a little bit more abstract when you leave primary school, the environment is different and all of a sudden you might be sitting at a desk by yourself working with a text book.’

But for now, Lloyd is putting his findings into practice by using aspects of HIIT in his own school setting with his senior secondary students. He incorporates ‘energiser’ activities into his mathematics classes, often setting students a one minute pedometer challenge, or other activities to get them moving, in the middle of a lesson to break up the time spent sitting down.

The researchers shared details of the 2017 trial at a MERGA (Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia) 2018 conference in New Zealand last month. The conference presentation was titled, Making maths a HIIT at school: a whole school approach.

One teacher who took part in this study noted the activities gave students the opportunity to practice maths without fear of failure. How do you ensure your students have this same opportunity?

Susan 22 August 2018

Exciting, if small, study. Students are engaged in learning while practicing math skills and increasing fitness.

Margaret Paton 28 August 2018

What a great idea ... we really need to do something to get more eyeballs on and enthusiasm about maths. Just heard that 4.18% of NSW HSC students tackled the highest level of maths in 2017 (Pallaavi Singhal’s Sydney Morning Herald Article from 25/8/18). This doesn’t bode well for skilling up the maths teachers of tomorrow. Ouch!

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