Developing Mathematics in Prison Education Michael Allcock
Michael Allcock is Mathematics team leader at HMP Humber and has taught maths and numeracy there for 7 years. He has taken part in the Education Training Foundation’s (ETF) annual research conferences, presenting findings from a Suncett (Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training at the University of Sunderland) Research Development Fellowship (14/15) and the ETF Exploratory Research in Maths programme (15/16).
I currently work at HMP Humber, a category C male prison with an operational capacity of 1062 inmates and an average length of stay of about 12 months. Some of the inmates engage in Mathematics to improve their skills, but most see no actual benefit of education. The journey an inmate takes into education starts with induction, which produces an assessment score (pre-entry to level 2). This score then determines if they have a need to engage in education or progress into their chosen pathway (job), for example wing cleaner. If their assessment score is below Level 1 or their job requires a Level 1 qualification, they are allocated to education. This is either a morning (8:15-11:45) or afternoon (13:30-16:45) and they must attend all week. The aim is to engage learners until they achieve Level 1 thus allowing progression to their preferred job. However, little additional support is offered outside of the classroom. I feel this classroom-based approach compounds the negative view of mathematics, which most learners already have from school. I have decided to pilot a new approach which I have labelled as a ‘top down’ delivery model. First, I have introduced higher level maths courses, both GCSE and AS Level, for those who want to do maths and already understand the benefit. The idea is to have these learners act as maths mentors, who will operate both on the wing and in workshops, promoting and supporting maths. The positive impact will eventually filter through into the classrooms. The start of this process was linked to a promotion, where people could get a calculator by completing a number of tasks. This meant that 14 wing-based mentors were able to get a calculator each. These mentors have undertaken a course on guidance and have a role to help other learners on a range of issues. The calculator will help learners calculate the total cost of extra items, such as tobacco, chocolate or biscuits, which are delivered on a weekly basis to the prison by DHL. Such activities offer a great opportunity to engage learners who would not normally attend maths classes. The mentors, who are undertaking the higher level maths, can also help with more complex maths queries on the wings as they arise. For example, level 2 learners who have chosen not to learn in a classroom could get help understanding ratios. I also intend to create greater opportunities to engage with maths for inmates who have children of school age. Being able to discuss or help with a child’s homework during prison visits or by written correspondence could be a great connection or mutual bond for fathers and their children. I will also be developing a range of resources with a firm focus on visual modelling, producing a ‘link board’ where images are used to link related topics and to allow links to be explored. The first example I have produced (see below) focuses on the number one and the importance it plays in a range of topics including trigonometry, vectors as well as basic number.
The link board fits the teaching approach I have chosen. This is based on a mixture of two different approaches: The Mastery concept, best illustrated by Singapore methodology, where no classroom streaming takes place and all learners work with the same resources. The focus is on developing understanding, rather than merely answering questions. The lesson study model, where tutors work together to develop resources and stratagies. I fully appreciate that this approach takes more time and is nearly impossible in a classroom only, hence the need for a whole prison approach. Time can be spent developing skills in a non-threatening environment outside the classroom, before engaging in more formal classroom-based education. The Old Trafford visual below is an example of a resource that can be used with a range of levels, using the Mastery methodology. It could be used to calculate perimeter but can also be used to calculate arc sectors of a circle. No worksheet is produced just a set of verbal questions, which encourage learners to carry out a range of investigations. I will also produce more complex wing based challenges to generate discussion and allow more capable learners an opportunity to express themselves.
At the time of writing this article, I am in the early stages of the implementation of this new approach to mathematics delivery in prison. I fully appreciate to change the mind-set of a whole prison takes time. I intend to document both positive and negative experiences, as I introduce different elements. I feel this will improve education in the long term, enabling people doing maths to enjoy it and encouraging more people to choose to engage with maths.
The following is a background, to a presentation, I will be delivering at the Education and Training Foundation annual Practitioner Research Summer Conference at Mary Ward House, London, on the 5th July 2016.
I copy here the first paragraphs of a paper by Frank Coffield who was the Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.
"Just for once let us take the government’s rhetoric seriously and imagine a learning and skills sector (LSS), where teaching and learning have become the number one priority”[i]. So let’s suppose all the reforms detailed in the Dame Coates’ prison report become reality. How can we, as professionals, rise to the challenges of placing education first?
It is relevant, at this point, to have some background knowledge on the author. I have 12 years’ experience of delivering mathematics in prison. Starting with key skills, progressing onto functional skills and currently just had learners take the new level 3 Core Mathematics exam. I have not only taught, but have been actively researching prison education for 2 years, supported by Sunderland University, with one published research paper[ii]. I am currently studying, at Plymouth University, a Master Degree focusing on Innovations through lesson study - Teaching through Problem Solving.
I feel my voice has some validity when I express an opinion on the prison reform paper “putting education at the heart of the prison regime”. This will be backed up by referencing academic research, looking at the best-performing systems around the world, and include the evidence based quantitative research carried out by Professor John Hattie[iii]. In which he lists the most influential factors on student achievement and cites Self-reported grades or “Student Expectations” as the most important. This basically involves the teacher finding out what are the student’s expectations and pushing the learner to exceed these expectations.
I have long held the belief that the ceiling of level 2, in prison, was wrong. I therefore seized the opportunity of introducing the Level 3 Core Mathematics qualification into prison. It allowed me to experience, first hand, the effect of raising learner expectations. I would like to express my gratitude to the AQA guest speaker, who attended The Manchester College final exam preparation event, who agreed to sponsor the learners.
I will discuss the notion of whole prison education and how I will document both the elements that work and the elements that fail.
There are caveats associated with this work. The main one being the basic needs, of the learners, have been met. These being feeling safe both on the wings and in education, being fed and receiving the correct medication on time.
Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority[a]……. in prison education [a]Coffield F (2008), Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority . . ., London;LSN
The most powerful quote in my first Blog was taken from Frank Coffield “we are professionals trying to build a solid base of knowledge about teaching and learning. Practice should be informed by evidence”
One of the main raison d'être of active research is to challenge existing practice and question its validity, especially if it is controlled by none academic stakeholders. I have challenged, campaigned and banged my head against a no change mentality brick wall. I have produced an academic paper which sits on a database next to the other extremely valid papers. However each day I return to work and continue delivering the same subject, to the best of my ability, in the knowledge that this is a fundamentally flawed delivery model. The first rant was about the length of time (3.5 hours) of the classes, which remains the same today. In short, I have to continually work in an environment I know is wrong but apply a professionalism plaster and pretend it’s all better.
I then read a book, for me this is a big thing! by Jo Boaler entitled “Mathematical Mindsets”. The book has challenged my own perception of teaching the subject I love. It is always hard to reflect on you own practice and admit you are not doing the best for your learners, I can cope if it’s due to lack of time etc, but not when I believe I have the wrong pedagogical approach. Hence the basic of the first, of a number of blogs, I will write, introducing into prison what I believe is an improved approach for Mathematics delivery.
I do not intend to offer a quick fix, or short term solution. A long term resolution requires a long term commitment and cannot be achieved solely at the teaching level, as demonstrated by my original dissertation, but requires a whole prison approach. Also just to mix it up a bit I will, in parallel, slowly introduce the concept of lesson study into the maths department.
Each Blog will document a small section, or “patch” of the introduction of a whole prison approach to mathematics delivery, warts and all. I will, at a later date, stitch them together into a reflexive commentary that will form the bases of my Master’s degree dissertation entitled:
Innovations through lesson study – Teaching through Problem Solving.
I was in the privileged position of witnessing Frank Coffield deliver a key note speech at the Marriot hotel in Sunderland. He was discussing learning styles and recommended you ask: "Which instrument do you recommend? What's its validity? Reliability? Any evidence of positive impact on raising attainment or improving behaviour?" If the answer is "no idea", explain that we are professionals trying to build a solid base of knowledge about teaching and learning. Practice should be informed by evidence, not by the unexamined hunches of some guru who's making a fortune from peddling poppycock.
The comments were targeted at learning style but I started to ask myself if I should apply the same criteria to other elements of prison education, especially the length of each teaching session. In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) Shanghai topped the performance table? The maths lessons are 50 minutes in length. The question I pose is:
What is the empirical evidence that a 3.5 hour maths lesson is good for learners and learning?
It is not only the length of the individual lessons that needs challenging but also the weekly total. In the spirit of all good active research projects I have carried out a comprehensive survey, my own children. They spent 240 minutes a week learning maths. My learners nearly achieve this on a Monday morning, before clocking up a total exceeding a thousand!