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Associate Professor Roberta (Bobbie) Hunter

‘Bobbie maths’ raising Pasifika achievement

 A revolution in maths achievement using a culturally-tailored approach developed at Massey University is attracting worldwide attention, and making a difference in the lives of South Auckland school children.

Associate Professor Roberta (Bobbie) Hunter developed the inquiry-based approach aimed at raising maths achievement in low decile schools with predominantly Pasifika students for her PhD five years ago.

These days she is in demand to share her teachings at home and worldwide, from Singapore and Hawa’ii to Canada and the United Kingdom.

In her ‘communities of mathematical inquiry’ approach – dubbed ‘Bobbie maths’ – pupils work together to unravel a problem. And instead of defaulting to Westernised examples when applying mathematical concepts, they might refer to the weight of a taro, or dimensions of a tapa cloth. This culturally-tailored feature of her approach is a major factor in breaking down barriers that inhibit many from engaging and achieving in maths, says Dr Hunter, a senior lecturer at Massey’s Institute of Education at the Albany campus.

This year the Ministry of Education allocated $1.5m to enable her to continue refining the model, evaluate its success and to provide professional development to 140 more teachers in 16 South Auckland schools. Her aim is to see teachers in low decile schools across the country using the model. Several Porirua schools have recently come on board.

Otumoetai Intermediate in Tauranga won the Supreme Prime Minister’s Award for Education earlier this year, with accelerated mathematics achievement based on Dr Hunter’s approach noted as one of the attributes they were commended for. The improvements resulted from a three-year period of Skype and face-to-face professional development sessions with teachers.

The Ministry of Education’s Chief Education Advisor Adrienne Alton-Lee this year congratulated Massey University in a letter on the “extraordinary educational improvement work that Dr Roberta Hunter is leading in New Zealand”, noting the research and development in her doctoral study was hailed as among the best in the world by a Harvard Professor Emerita.

Dr Hunter’s teaching model is based on getting children to work collaboratively in groups to question, argue and reason their way through mathematical problem solving, using culturally-based examples and contexts. Its success hinges on training teachers to understand the approach and to learn how to facilitate it through drawing on cultural contexts that reflect the lives of their students. This means involving parents and communities too.

It’s about bringing in real world common sense to maths inquiry,” she says.

Dr Hunter, who developed a love of maths through watching her Cook Islands mother measuring and making geometric patterns for intricate tivaevae (fabric art) patterns, says maths teaching needs to be done in a cultural framework using problem-solving examples that reflect the lives of the students.

The approach can have benefits for student learning across all subjects, and can be adapted to students of diverse cultures in New Zealand or any country, she says.

But it requires some radical re-wiring in the minds of teachers about their role and how they relate to the class. “It’s not easy for teachers out in Mangere. They’ve had to learn a completely new way to look at the children they teach,” she says. “If a child is not learning, you have to look at the teacher.”

The importance of evaluating the method and measuring results is critical, she adds.

“I believe you if improve things from the bottom up, the New Zealand figures will improve overall.”

Dr Hunter’s work is being showcased at the launch this week of Massey’s Pacific Research and Policy Centre at the Albany campus. The centre’s is focus is on key development issues facing Pasifika communities in New Zealand and in the wider Pacific region, including public health, disease prevention, environment and climate change-related issues, disaster risk management, sustainable economic development, and education.

Pacific-oriented research – by New Zealand-born Pasifika scholars as well as many from throughout the Pacific who are part of the new centre – is underpinned by a strong awareness of indigenous cultural values, says centre co-director Associate Professor Malakai Kolomatangi.

The university currently has around 130 researchers with expertise in Pacific issues across its five colleges for Business, Creative Arts, Health, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Sciences.



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