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The Future Benefits of Mathematics Continue To Add: A look at the Design Thinking behind the new UWCSEA Dover High School Mathematics Programme

By Robert DeAbreu, Teacher of HS Mathematics, Dover Campus

UWCSEA is recognised as a global leader in K-12 education, not least for our continuous innovation in student learning, preparing students for the uncertain future that lies ahead. One recent exciting innovation is the development of the mission-aligned Grade 9/10 UWCSEA programme, which launched in Grade 9 this year. As Head of College, Nick Alchin, said, this programme “gives students more flexibility and choice, more complex, real-world problem solving, more interdisciplinary thinking and more authentic assessment in-line with the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma assessment model.”

It has been rewarding to be part of the team that has designed and will continue to hone our newly created UWCSEA Mathematics course. In this article, we hope to give our community some insight into how design principles have been applied when shaping the High School Mathematics programme at UWCSEA Dover. 

Flexibility and Choice

Our aim has always been to ensure students can make meaningful choices to personalise their learning experience. In our first Grade 9 unit, Structure and Connection, we challenge students to take their skills in number, algebra and indices further, to make conjectures and generalise patterns. For their summative assessment, students are asked to complete three tasks from a choice of ten, enabling them to dive deeper into a problem of interest, while achieving key learning goals. The result is much more inspired work, and deeper engagement in the processes of problem solving and mathematical communication. In our third Grade 9 unit, Sustainable Relationships, students choose which data sets to analyse on assignments. This allows them to grapple with the challenges of establishing relationships while working within a context that is meaningful to them, whether they are investigating the impact of sprinter height on a 100m Olympic race time, or exploring the cost difference between cooking fuels in Guatemala.

This also means that we can be more flexible with what students produce on assessment tasks. Ray, a current Grade 9 Dover student explains, “You can create whatever you want to express your knowledge of mathematics and that allows you to really understand what mathematics is; that’s what I love about this course.” 

For much of Grade 9, assessments have taken the form of projects, which are well suited to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their competency in the areas of knowledge and understanding, communication, and critical thinking. Where appropriate, students are permitted to submit their work as either a traditional report, a set of slides, or a video. This is not as common in more rigidly structured systems that favour traditional testing, a format we know does not always effectively measure student development beyond knowledge and understanding. While students will continue to have some examinations and tests in the Grade 9/10 UWCSEA Mathematics course, we now have greater flexibility to determine the form and type of assessment task we offer, which will help more students to reach key learning goals and achieve high levels in mathematics.

UWCEA Dover maths teachers discussing

Complex, Real-World Problem Solving

“Regardless of whether you have or haven’t enjoyed maths in the past,” said Grade 9 student Julia, “it’s universal to always ask yourself, ‘what am I going to use this for?’ I think that through the UWCSEA course, a lot of that is answered. You’re not just doing the maths but you’re also applying it and transferring it to real-life scenarios” she said. 

In our design of the UWCSEA Mathematics course, we created learning engagements for students in real-world contexts. This challenges students to determine the degree to which their findings make sense; to question the relevance and reliability of processes; and to understand more fully the significance and validity of their solutions. The result is that students learn mathematics at a much deeper level and see the purpose in the work they are doing. 

It is important to note here that the rigorous and complex mathematical work in the course is not exclusively connected to the real world. Theoretical mathematics, where students solve problems or prove theorems using a myriad of algebraic and geometric axioms, are also legitimate and important contexts. The key is that their work in mathematics is purposeful. In our fourth unit, The World Around Us, students are challenged to use a variety of algebraic principles and geometric structures to prove theorems and solve complex optimisation problems. This context not only has real-world implications for sustainability, but highlights the importance of mathematical rigour in effective planning and ideation.

Interdisciplinary Thinking

When designing the course, it was important to provide opportunities for students to make connections - to prior learning, to related topics in the course, and to their learning in other subjects. As such, we grouped mathematical topics together in each of our units of study based on their intrinsic connection. For instance, our choice to teach trigonometry, similar shapes, mensuration and the Pythagorean Theorem together reinforces their interconnection and helps students construct these key concepts as one unified transferable skill set. Establishing conceptual interconnection, while learning mathematics in authentic, complex, real-life contexts, enables students to leverage knowledge from their other subjects, such as science, languages, and the humanities.

“I think the course helps in a lot of other subjects in terms of projects and collaborative skills. It doesn’t teach you to memorise facts but more to understand them conceptually,” observed Julia. “You can really see how maths could link to your higher education and also your career.” Grade 9 student Sid agrees, “I’m a lot more excited to come to maths class because we get to approach it like we do science, by truly exploring maths rather than just answering questions.”

At its core, the course also develops interdisciplinary thinking by helping students hone their Approaches to Learning (AtL), a hallmark of an IB Diploma education which includes the following cross-subject skills: communication, research, thinking, self-management, and social skills. We do this with group-worthy tasks promoting interdependence in the collaborative process. This in turn engages students in meaningful dialogue and challenges them to listen intently; value the perspectives of others; explain themselves clearly; justify their positions; and work towards reaching a consensus.

The complementary independent tasks encourage students to cite sources effectively; make prudent and ethical data analysis decisions; structure their written work appropriately; and plan project work into manageable parts. These AtL skills, along with deep subject knowledge, help our students prepare for all the challenges they will face in their final years of High School and beyond.

UWCEA Dover maths teachers discussing poster

Alignment with the IB Diploma and the UWCSEA Mission

A key design principle was to ensure the course’s alignment with the UWCSEA Mission. Learning engagements aim to inspire students to engage with important questions regarding peace, culture, unity, and sustainability alongside the mathematical concepts they develop. In our Mind the Gap unit, students are challenged to use statistical analysis to create an awareness-raising video on a diversity, equity, inclusion, and/or justice issue that is important to them. This task naturally compels them to ask themselves, ‘how ethical is our persuasive narrative?’ and to identify and reduce their own biases as they tell the story their data shows. To accomplish this, students consider factors such as their data sample size and composition, their decision to keep or remove outliers, and the basis for their conclusions. The responsible use of mathematical data and analysis is a powerful way to address ethical questions and use mathematics as a force for positive change and to unify others towards a worthy cause.

Our course also has the goal of ensuring students’ readiness for the IB Diploma and the pilot IBDP currently being developed for introduction in August 2024. Alignment with the IB’s inquiry-based, conceptual approach is essential. The course is structured and guided to help students effectively engage in inquiry. Direct instruction remains an effective strategy used in the course, but students who routinely engage in structured inquiry tasks build a variety of problem-solving skills and come to trust their mathematical intuition. “Being able to explore and try to find my own answers has been really rewarding,” said Grade 9 student Mina, whose Mind the Gap video was a fine example of the outstanding pieces of work created by students in the UWCSEA Mathematics course this year. 

What’s Next?

One of the best features of a bespoke programme is that the course can be adjusted to meet the needs of students year-on-year and will continually evolve to meet the ever changing demands of an uncertain future. 

As the 2022/2023 school year comes to a close, the Mathematics Department at Dover Campus is proud of this rich and relevant course and we are excited to further refine our UWCSEA Mathematics course for Grade 10 in the coming 2023/2024 school year.