The more collaborative style of learning led by trade unions in the workplace helps people to become more motivated and confident about learning and using mathematics. Indeed, my new research shows that even long-held negative feelings towards mathematics can be overcome.
The study, published in Motivating adults to learn mathematics in the workplace: a trade union approach, finds a strong link between developing adult learners’ confidence and the support provided by local social networks and the particular pedagogic processes promoted by trade unions in the workplace. However, there is still much debate about the value of using trade union resources to support such skills development. This is despite evidence from government-funded research showing that it is one of the ‘few effective existing models of work-based support for mathematics and English’ and highlighting the role of peer support.
My qualitative research took place with people who were learning maths up to GCSE level through their trade unions in the workplace. I interviewed twelve men and eight women aged between 25 and 65. They came from a range of trade unions and were employed in a variety of contexts, in small and large organisations, publicly and privately owned. They studied in a variety of environments; individually following on-line courses with tutor support or in teacher-led groups.
In workplaces where trade unions are active, Union Learning Representatives (ULRs ) act as part of a supportive social network of trusted trade union members. Their role it is to encourage colleagues to join mathematics (and other) classes to develop their ‘employability’ skills, while ensuring the classes are accessible, fitting in with irregular work patterns in convenient workplaces. Trade unions also argue they promote teaching and learning approaches that develop collectivist and activist principles, which is often different from the traditional mainstream education ethos in schools and colleges that tends to be more individualistic.
The adult learners interviewed described the importance of having a ‘different’, more positive learning experience in relation to their motivation to learn mathematics. They perceived the learning (pedagogical approach) to be more collaborative than previously experienced. It took place in smaller classes, in a relaxed atmosphere where they felt they could talk openly about mathematics and their problems. Additionally, where possible, topics that were related to their work or everyday life.
The adults often used emotional language in response to questions about their motivation to learn mathematics, indeed twelve of the interviewees talked about feeling a change in their ‘confidence’ when explaining their current motivation.
The data analysis shows that – when they are given a second chance to achieve in a subject that has high social value, such as mathematics, even after previous difficult learning experiences – adults can develop positive feelings towards the subject, illustrating what can be termed a positive Affective Mathematical Journey (AMJ). This effect results in them being motivated to act more confidently in relation to mathematics both inside and outside the classroom. For example: two talked about using their skills to negotiate with management on behalf of fellow trade union members, four had become ULRs encouraging others to develop their personal skills, two became teachers of mathematics within the trade unions while one more learner was about to start training for that role.
Although the learning takes place in the workplace, the findings are nevertheless relevant to practitioners working with adult learners in both traditional and non-traditional settings. The research points to the importance of recognising the role of emotions and feelings as well as pedagogy when dealing with adults whose learning has ‘stalled’. The more supportive, collaborative approach to learning, where people can talk about their mathematical misconceptions in a relaxed atmosphere, without fear of ridicule, is an approach that is currently used in some mainstream mathematics classes but could be promoted more widely, especially when working with adults.
The research by Beth Kelly expresses the independent evidence-based views of its author; no funding was given by any trade union in support of the work. Beth is an Honorary Research Associate at UCL Institute of Education and is the new Chair of Adults Learning Mathematics (ALM), an international research forum.
Photo: Bristol Royal Mail learning centre, Bristol. Shot on commission for South West TUC. © Jess Hurd