Dr Lorraine Harbison is working out how to make maths education count

17 Oct 2017

Dr Lorraine Harbison. Image: DCU

Maths has a bad reputation as a tough subject students often struggle with. Dr Lorraine Harbison is examining how a rethinking of maths education can change that.

Dr Lorraine Harbison is chiefly concerned with the M in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). She is associate professor in mathematics education at the Dublin City University (DCU) School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies, which itself is part of CASTeL, the Centre for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning.

Following a portfolio career in education, Harbison’s work now focuses on making maths accessible to all children, which means making it engaging; bringing it out of the abstractions of textbooks and into the real world that children interact with daily.

Harbison works with student teachers, and her research can help change the way we teach maths to kids for the better. Here, she tells us about her research and work at DCU.

What led you to the role you have now?

I have had quite a portfolio career within education generally and also in higher education: Hibernia College, the Church of Ireland College of Education and now with DCU.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am working on making primary mathematics accessible to all children. This involves employing a range of methods to actively engage children in their learning, such as working with everyday manipulatives, interacting with technology, bringing the classroom outdoors to discover and use mathematics in the environment, or simply enjoying a book together that incorporates mathematical content.

What first stirred your interest in this area?

I wanted to take away the perceived fear and anxiety that mathematics seems to instil in children.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day for you?

My day is very much centred around my teaching. Planning for lectures is guided by my research, and my work with the student teachers helps to inform current and future research projects.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

I need to be well organised, observant and proactive in responding to changes and challenges as they arise.

What applications do you foresee for this research?

Early understanding of mathematics is vital to prepare children for life in this digital age, which is reliant upon skills that cannot be readily taught using the more traditional, textbook-dependent approach.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

Mathematics can be viewed as a prescribed set of procedures that needs to be learnt off and applied at speed. I encourage problem-based and enquiry-based learning that requires time to think, collaborative planning of solution strategies, talking through individually designed processes and representing mathematics in multiple different ways.

When you first started work as a researcher, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

The ability to question. It is amazing the amount of facts that we have learnt off by heart and use unquestioningly without considering why.

What do you enjoy most about your career in research?

My research is grounded in everyday application. It is rewarding to see the concepts that are employed as part of the research programme being utilised by student teachers who grow in confidence in their teaching of mathematics. Seeing them enjoying teaching mathematics and the children responding with enthusiasm is very satisfying.